“I just have one question.”
The old man and a woman I took to be his wife came up to me after I had burned through my signing line at Book Bar, a lovely venue in the Berkeley neighborhood of Denver, Colorado. I was there with fellow New Mexican author Rebecca Roanhorse who was promoting her electric debut Trail of Lightning while I was promoting my own debut Implanted from Angry Robot. We had both read sections from our respective books, answered questions moderated by J.L. Forrest who runs the Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy reading series, and then made ourselves available to sign books and chat with audience members afterwards. Forrest provides a nice recap of the evening here.
It was only my forth public appearance for Implanted, and I was still trying to figure out how to strike that careful balance between being approachable and authorly, all the while keeping imposter syndrome at bay. No mean feat when you’re sitting next to the zeitgeist. My mouth was tired from trying to smile for the last two hours lest my resting bitch face slip through. I still hadn’t found a position on my barstool that both presented my pear-shaped frame to best advantage and didn’t aggravate my lower back. I was regretting my choice of outfit and rethinking my answer to one of the questions put to us earlier in the evening. And oh god was I hungry, having put off dinner since there hadn’t been time to eat beforehand.
But I smiled at the couple and said, “Sure!”
He had his hands clasped behind his back. His wife stood mute beside him, a half-smile pasted to her face. An impressive white beard reached down to his breastbone. He paused and pursed his lips, and suddenly I realized this wouldn’t be like the other people I’d spoken with that evening. The ones who said they were excited to read Implanted after hearing me speak, the woman who was grateful to have found a cyberpunk novel not imbued with the male gaze, or the nervous young man desperate for writing advice. Somehow, this would be different.
This gentleman pointed out that both excerpts Rebecca and I had read that night depicted women hunting men for hurting another woman. After a moment of reflection, I realized it was true. Rebecca read from Chapter 2 of Trail of Lightning where her main character Maggie is chasing down a man-shaped monster who has stolen away a young woman to feast on—a powerful, unsettling scene. My selection, the opening chapter of Implanted, the main character Emery is hunting a young man who’s in the process of stalking a different young woman. When the coast is clear, he attacks in an attempt to steal her neural implant. Emery stops him, but she leaves the scene of the crime before the police arrive, setting her on a journey the rest of the book follows.
“Would your character go to such an effort to protect a man in the same situation?” the old man asked me, an unpleasant intensity to his voice.
Rebecca was engaged with some enthusiastic fans beside me, so she luckily didn’t have to face his quiet disbelief when I said, “Yes, of course.”
I then nattered on about how that wasn’t really the point of the scene though, that my main character was protecting someone from a similar attack she survived before the events of the book, that as the author, I got to pick what elements best served my story, and in this case, upending reader expectations and exploring female rage, was my goal. After all, I named the person Emery is following Breck Warner, echoing the name of that of apex scumbag Brock Turner. Subtle, I am not. Of course it would be a young woman Emery’s trying to protect from a repeat of her own past, a past she hasn’t quite figured out how to escape at the start of the book. I said something glib about sisterhood too, but the details at this point are fuzzy.
But I well remember the way he shook his head, disappointed, and left. His wife followed him, having never said a word. Oh, and in case you were wondering, he didn’t buy either my or Rebecca’s book.
I’ve thought a lot about that interaction since. I know it doesn’t hold a candle to uncomfortable interactions other authors have had with members of the public over the years. But I try to analyze moments like this when they pop up to better prepare me for the next one. I’m a classic staircase wit where I’m nothing better than a deer in headlights in the moment. It’s only after I’ve retired from the hum and buzz of a public interaction that any cleverness returns, far too late for a rescue.
As a publishing professional trying to drum up support for a debut, I’m always fearful that any negative interaction could affect my ability to get another project published—not true of course, but the little voice in my head doesn’t know that. After reviewing that conversation, however, I don’t think there was anything I could have said to salvage that interaction—to make the sale, as it were. He was being provocative at best, trying to set me down at worst, for having the temerity to center the female experience in my story.
So much of writing—writing for publication, that is—is getting enough people to decide, “hey, this is great,” and getting even more people to read it, preferably giving up their cold hard cash for the opportunity to do so. The business side of writing leads to this mindset that we must go after every potential reader and find a way to convince them we’re worth their time and money. That each missed opportunity is why our numbers suck, that if we could only convince this one other person we’d all be bestsellers and shortlisted for all the awards. A bruising cycle that only ends when you either quit writing or pick out a penname to start over.
It’s not worth it. Even for someone like me where my little book could use all the help it can get. But if someone is going to approach my book from such a perspective, there’s something freeing in deciding: my dude, my work is not for you.
These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.
You can find such sentiment online, often in pithy tweets that read like affirmations in our current political climate made by women stronger and/or more experienced than me in navigating the intersection of art and economics in a broken world. Sometimes it feels a little like settling, knowing your work can never have the reach you’ve dreamed of. Or maybe I should feel driven to succeed despite that dude and all the others like him, even if it feels like crawling uphill over shards of glass. I don’t know. Of course, I’m still writing, but my wide-eyed naiveté has taken a critical hit, and I’m not sure I can afford that, not when that naiveté is what allowed me to pursue writing in the first place.
It’s just one guy, right? Why am I even letting myself get caught up in all this? Maybe it’s the people-pleaser in me. Maybe it’s a way for me to give other writers out there a head’s up about the world we’re so desperate to be a part of, a toolkit for deciding how and when to cut your losses.
And maybe, like Emery, I’m trying to protect my future self from another no-win situation, where the best choice is to walk away and keep writing, no matter what.