Marie-Anne Mancio, author of Whorticulture, talks about her approach to writing and her plans for the future.
Why do you write? Is it something you’ve always done, or always wanted to do? Or is it something that you started fairly recently?
I’ve always been creative in one way or another. I don’t really distinguish between writing fiction or making an art work or even writing an essay because to me it’s all about ideas and then finding the best medium for that idea. When I don’t have a creative project to work on I get very irritable and unhappy!
Tell me a little about your book.
It’s set in the years before the American Civil War and tells the stories of four women. Journeys are central to each of them: Katharine is an unsophisticated country girl taken to the city to be educated; Abigail has to survive amid the chaos of San Francisco’s Gold Rush; Seraphine flees the South and ends up in a New York brothel; and Emily leaves the cocoon of her Bostonian family to marry the owner of a sugar plantation.
As you progress through the novel, you begin to realize the connections between these women, how their fates are interlinked through the men in their lives. Whorticulture touches on several themes including prostitution. I guess it asks you to consider your moral compass.
Are there any authors who inspire you?
Lots. Dostoyevsky for characterization and sheer story telling; contemporary writers like Jeanette Winterson and Zora Neale Hurston for their inventive way with language. F Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Graham Greene for their economy of prose….
How do you write? Do you make yourself write a certain number of words per day?
I write incredibly slowly and intensively. I am very jealous of writers who can somehow write in snatches during their commute to work and emerge with a novel. I tried setting myself daily word limits but it didn’t work for me. I prefer to research in an organic way – collecting images, texts, essays, fragments of dialogue – then to write in concentrated sessions. It’s a luxury when I get a clear fortnight to go to my desk every day with no other distractions.
Did you try to get a conventional publisher or agent interested before you opted for self-publishing?
Yes and no. I have a brilliant agent in Lesley Thorne at Aitken Alexander Associates but the version of Whorticulture we sent out to a few major presses was a different book. I got some very encouraging responses and intended to redraft before trying the smaller presses. But I knew when I finished my re-write (and this was literally years later because I shelved the manuscript for such a long time) that it probably wouldn’t find a publisher because it was now a short novel.
In the meantime I’d also met artist and writer Peter Stickland who published his own work and other authors’ at 77books. It made me look at self-publishing in a whole new way – as exactly like making any other kind of art work where ultimately you take responsibility for deciding when something is good enough to show. Now the whole idea of a publisher saying, ”Well, I like it but could you add another 20,000 words” or “could you get rid of this character” seems as crazy to me as telling a painter you’d buy their work if they’d only use a bit more blue!
I’d like to have a version of Whorticulture in print at some stage because I love books as objects. But it may be a beautifully made limited edition with more of Robert Allmand and Michala Seilman Tønsberg’s stunning illustrations.
What goals have you set yourself? Do you want to sell a certain number of books in 2012? Is there some way you measure success, on your own terms?
Very good question. Of course I’d love to sell loads of books, who wouldn’t, but I’ve been told that an e-book has its own rhythm so I’m not thinking about deadlines for sales. (I read somewhere that a literary first novel by an unknown author is expected to sell between 2,000 and 7,000 copies… I don’t know how accurate that is or how attainable). I’m trying to evaluate the book by listening to readers’ feedback. It would feel like a success if Whorticulture provoked debate around its issues. And, of course, if people wanted to read something else by me.
How have you marketed your books?
I’m not one of these social media savvy writers. I used Facebook a lot when I lived abroad and love it as a way of sharing information but I realized pretty quickly I needed to be more professional than that. The same with Twitter. Again I’m impressed with these marketing whizzes who focus on following the right people etc. My Twitter feed is probably very confusing as it encompasses all my activities from art practice to writing to occasional outbursts about how sorry I am that Didier Drogba has left Chelsea Football Club. I haven’t paid for Facebook/ Google advertising yet as I’ve heard this isn’t as effective as word of mouth.
Have you signed up for KDP Select?
I came to the idea of e-publishing via Smashwords. I read around, considered KDP Select, but Mark Coker of Smashwords made a lot of sense. If you believe in the ethos of self-publishing which is also about a kind of democracy, why restrict yourself to one outlet? Why do either/or when you can do both? Smashwords formats your manuscript for Barnes and Noble and doesn’t prevent you from selling your work elsewhere. I see Smashwords as the virtual independent book store on the corner: we need to safeguard it or we’ll end up with a homogenous one-stop shop and I don’t think that kind of monopoly is healthy for readers or writers.
What’s next? Are you working on anything at the moment? Do you have anything new coming out in 2012?
I’ve promised myself I’ll publish a couple of short stories in 2012 but I’m also thinking about the next novel for 2013. It will definitely be historical – either set in the eighteenth century or a couple of readers have suggested a sequel to Whorticulture so who knows…