Alien Landscapes

On the changing landscape of publishing, bookish fears, and finding the wonder again

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

The last time I published a novel—a book called A Room Away from the Wolves in the fall of 2018—the world was a different one. Among all the obstacles that have come since, from the physical to the private and personal, I wonder if this is connected to why it’s taking me so long to revise this new novel, its title still a tightly bound secret I’m keeping if only for myself. I am standing at the edge of a dark field, reluctant or even unable to take any steps farther into the tall grass, even though everything I want is supposed to be out there. Why am I not more excited to throw myself into the unknown and see what’s next? Why have I literally been hiding in this house except for when I have to go to campus to teach my class? Why are my hands still pressed so tightly over my eyes even though it’s bright daylight and time to peek out?

The world was different before. But I used to be different, too.

When I was a child, the world outside our walls held such wonder. “Exploring” was a favorite pastime. Imagining what had happened in a place before I set foot in it could occupy me for hours, set off by the traces its previous occupants had left behind. There were mysteries and hidden stories everywhere and I wanted to know them.

Here’s a memory: I was once shaken awake in the night by news of extraterrestrial visitors. The memory is fogged and confused, a frenzy of information about unidentified lights in the sky, odd noises, and something strange sighted in the field beside our house. Had a UFO landed? We ventured out to see.

I might have been seven or eight or nine years old—childhood blends and blurs. This was the 1980s when we were in New Jersey. At that time we lived with another family, which was an unorthodox thing to do in that town. It was in this part of my life that I began to get a growing sense we were strange, that we didn’t fit in. We were two families living together in one giant farmhouse beside the railroad tracks, sharing bills and food fights across our gigantic dining room table, but we didn’t advertise the life we had. At school I pretended the two boys near my age were my “cousins” to explain to normal people why we lived together, but we weren’t at all related. They were my best friends and borrowed brothers for a brief but intense series of years when we shared a life. Farms surrounded our old house in great stretches of fields, and beyond that was the woods we kids explored and got lost in and made myths about.

This is how I remember that night: I wore pajamas and sneakers. We had flashlights. The night was warm and blue and after my eyes adjusted I could see the fringe of the trees and bushes all around, shadows that could hide any unknowable thing. We reached the edge of the field, the high grass swaying, and I hesitated going any farther. In the distance were the dark forms of the shaggy bushes, seeming giant enough to hide a crashed spaceship, and I wanted to see up close, but I was afraid.

The picture is so clear in my mind, decades later. The jittering of flashlights. The stars overhead. The half dark under the moon. I stood at the edge of the field, where there was a burned patch on the ground that once marked a fire. I didn’t want to leave this last safe spot.

Then something happened out in the dark, something I’ll never forget.

The giant bushes started swaying, undulating with movement. I saw arms. I saw life. I saw creatures from outer space and for one moment I fully believed a UFO had come from a galaxy far away and landed in our ragged yard near where the freight trains ran past. I truly thought we were about to be the first earthlings to greet them. And it was thrilling, for a glorious moment. It really was.

Of course it was also terrifying, and I screamed.

But, soon enough, I was laughing.

Wait, was this an ET encounter? No, I’m amused to say.

It was a prank, and two of the adults were hiding in the bushes to pretend. The lights were only flashlights. The noise was only a trick. There were no visiting extraterrestrials in our yard after all—and the world was a little safer but also smaller and a tiny bit less full of possibility.

When I think of that night, I remember the reveal and the shrieks of being fooled and running around the field laughing, but I also keep going back to the edge, right before, when I knew nothing and believed everything. When I looked out into the dark… and saw those arms moving and felt wonder.

I write these words as I don’t know what the future holds, which because I have no hobbies and being a fiction writer is the only activity I care about and do, seems like a lot of pressure to drop on one set of pages and one pursuit. This pressure is coming from me. I write these words from the inconvenient position of not having finished my novel revision yet, with less than a month left to the year. You can imagine the growing anxiety.

When I’m done, will I even recognize what’s out there? Will I know how to act and what to do?

The landscape of publishing has changed in incremental—as well as large and global—ways since I last had a novel out. And change is needed. We cannot stay stagnant if we want to survive. *Speaking of, I fully support the ongoing HarperCollins Union Strike and the workers out picketing the streets for a fair contract. As an author in the industry but also, on a personal note, a former member of this very union when I worked there as a senior production editor, I see the significance of this strike and feel frustration that the company has, as of this writing (Day 18) still refused to come back to the bargaining table. Read this recent dispatch from the strike to see why we should support these workers. And follow the HarperCollins Union on Twitter and/or Instagram for news and to find out how authors and readers and book people can show our support in whatever ways we can.*

Even beyond that, I write these words as expectations for authors are changing, contract terms are shifting less in our favor, readers are harder to reach, and the means and methods for self-promotion for authors isn’t what I knew from before. I feel like I’ll have to start over, just like I’m building up this small list of readers all over again. (Thank you to those who found me on the blog and/or subscribed on TinyLetter or follow me on Medium—you can read these posts in all three places, depending on your preference. No matter where or how you’re reading, I appreciate you.)

I also know the biggest change for me alone happened where no one can see it: inside me. Many of us can say something like this after the past few years we’ve had. We’re different people now. Maybe we exposed more of ourselves to ourselves. Maybe the things we want for our futures shifted. Maybe the jobs we had no longer serve us. Maybe the book we started writing before the pandemic evolved and there’s no going back now.

So hello, fellow writers. And hello, artists and readers and humans who feel so raw and new right now, no matter how long you’ve been at this living thing. If you’re finding yourself at the edge of a dark field, feeling wobbly or unsure, if you’re a writer who has had a hundred books out and feels this way or if you’re here with your very first, I guess I’m saying you’re not alone. I have a feeling there are a lot of us who don’t know what we’re doing in the publishing landscape today, if we ever did before.

There is something to be said for embracing the unknown and allowing ourselves to feel the small moments of wonder again, to at least try.

If a person’s true essence can be found inside you as a child and it’s the cruel, cold world that wrecks it and ruins what you could have been, then I want to remember that little girl in pajamas that New Jersey night under the stars: She ran out to that field ready for adventure. She hoped those alien visitors and that UFO was all true. She believed anything was possible and she wanted to see with her own eyes.

The facts are these:

She was afraid and she went out into the night anyway.

She went out, even though she was afraid.

Then she was shrieking and then she was laughing and then she wasn’t afraid anymore.

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