Do you know what shagreen is? Here’s a picture of a wallet in shagreen:
Until I read a magazine article about it some years back, I didn’t know that shagreen is what’s more commonly known as stingray hide. Appreciated for its striking appearance and lasting durability, it’s been in use for hundreds of years, to make items ranging from book covers and sword hilts to lampshades, bracelets, boots . . . even nightstands. And boy, could I use a suit of shagreen to wear right now. Because, not for the first time in my life, I’m going to need a tougher hide.
The Daughter warned me many revisions ago that I’d written a polarizing book. That once it was published, I should be ready for hate mail. I agreed with the thrust of Katie’s argument. With its reimagining of Old Testament themes, The Space Between has the potential to offend people at all points on the spectrum of religious belief. So I was more or less prepared for the woman so affronted by the subject matter of my book that she refused to review it. It controverts her idea of a Supreme Being, evidently. Okay, score one for Katie’s predictive skills. But I wasn’t prepared for the reviews that have materialized. Not because they’ve been bad. The majority have been decent so far and some have been great. (That doesn’t mean five bad ones won’t appear in the next 24 hours, of course.) It’s the fact that people have opinions about the book at all that’s surprising. That’s what I was not prepared for.
Was that naïve of me? Maybe, but my hopes for the book have been fairly modest from the beginning. What I envisioned was that friends and family would buy it, read it or not depending on their literary tastes, and then the whole episode would quietly subside until the sequel came out. Did I expect total strangers to read it? No. Despite all the promotional magic my favorite publicist Danielle performed to try to bring that about—the Facebook ads and the Goodreads giveaway, just for starters—I really didn’t. I sort of wished they would, but after the manuscript spent twelve years mostly hidden away in my computer, it seemed impossible that The Space Between should ever cross any random stranger’s reading radar. But the book has been out almost two months now, and some random strangers are indeed reading. And they’re beginning to express themselves.
Imagine people openly discussing your child or your spouse and not caring if you overheard. They could be lavishing your loved one with admiration and praise, but if you’re anything like me, you’d be anxiously waiting for the other shoe to drop, the part where they’d say, “Of course, there’s that really annoying thing he does when he . . .” Or, “She could do so much better if only she would try to be more . . .” So it isn’t just the bad reactions I fear, it’s every reaction. Whether it’s good, bad, or meh, I realize I’m happier not knowing any of it. That fear creates a state of nail-biting anxiety, and living in it makes me yearn for supreme self-confidence and complete indifference, or, failing both of those, a shagreen suit.
I want to be one of those writers who never reads their own reviews, never gives interviews, and just carries on with the job of writing. Occasionally I would emerge from my sanctum to make ice cream or drink cocktails or clean Phoebe’s Catbox of Despond. Unfortunately, that’s all just a pipedream.
Instead, I’ve been asking myself, What on earth have I done? Well, I’ve dropped my literary child out the third-floor window of a burning building and it’s landed headfirst on a cement trampoline, that’s what.
It’s much too late to go back to the way things were. To quote from James Thurber’s charming book, The 13 Clocks: “The fat is in the fire, the die is cast, the jig is up, the goose is cooked, and the cat is out of the bag.” I wished for it. I got it. I’m stuck with it.
Last night while we were watching a segment about Russian oligarchs on the national news, I told Glen I wanted to be an oligarch too. “How does one get to be an oligarch, anyway?” I asked him.
He fixed me with a loving, but uncompromising, gaze. “Sell more books.”
Oh, what the heck. In for a penny, in for a pound. Book 2 should be coming your way later next year. In the meantime, I’ll find some purple shoes to match my shagreen suit.