A Publishing Deal

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This week the two-book deal I signed with Simon & Schuster Canada was announced on Publishers' Marketplace and Quill & Quire. There must be a word to describe this exact feeling, the mix of joy and relief and fear and wonder and gratitude and validation. Maybe the word is thrilled. I am thrilled to now be a part of the Simon & Schuster Canada’s 2015 roster. I am thrilled that editor extraordinaire Martha Sharpe is working on the manuscript with me to get it stage ready. I am thrilled that I’m supposed to write a second book to go with the first. Scary – in a good way. The thought of a cover with my name on it, of my novel on a shelf in a bookstore… thrilling.

There’s also the humbling act of counting out everyone who’s played a part. Ian... in so many more ways than I can count, but also my parents and sisters, my three boys, my whole family, my amazing agent Chris Bucci, my sage Kendall Anderson, my first reader/thesis champion Lisa Moore, my earliest and gentlest readers, my friends and neighbours, my retreat partner Mariska Gatha, the women in my book club, my UBC cohort, my teaching colleagues, my students. A hundred more names to add to these.

In the first week after the offer came, when I was still too stunned to process it, it happened more than once that someone else's joy in the news reminded me that this was what I’ve wanted, this is why I’ve worked so hard for so long. People brought me champagne and insisted I stop for a minute to raise a glass. Forget about the logistics - how will it all get done? – and savour it.

And in my short time on the inside, I’ve been caught up in the swell of fiercely devoted and intelligent people who make up the book industry, who love books and work tirelessly to put them in our hands. It’s encouraging no matter what the realities of publishing might be these days.

I can’t wait for what the next year brings.

An act of optimism

Writers aren't renowned as a particularly optimistic bunch. It can be a lonely toil and the rewards are never guaranteed. I've recently started another big project (I won't use the n*vel word until I hit 20K words) connected to the last big project, and when I wake up early or wander out late into the icy dark to write, I need that sense that I'm doing it for good reason. Even with all the ominous news of decreasing readership and closing bookstores and such, I keep on believing that writing is worth my time and sacrifice. I'm hopeful because there is still so much good writing coming out into the world, so many books each year that I buy and read and love. I engage in great discussions on the topic all the time, either at my book club or on Twitter or in my classroom or anywhere else. Also, I'm quite certain my students are reading more now than they ever have; I can see them turning away from their screens and back to old-school books, perhaps a renaissance before the death of the written word was truly upon us.

So, I'm optimistic.

Years ago my hubby gifted me a journal and I think the inscription - care of Edward Albee - says it best.

A pile of drafts = a novel.

I wandered around my house today and collected each of the drafts I printed along the way in the quest to finish my novel. These drafts are dated:

February 29, 2012

October 3, 2012

June 9, 2013

September 19, 2013

 

This (really high) pile of words acts as a time capsule for the past few years of my life. In July 2010, I sat down for the first time at the Muskoka Novel Marathon and wrote 50 pages of some version of this book. Two months later, I was surprised to learn that those pages had won first prize in the fiction category. So, I kept going. It took me a year and a half to finish the first draft, with a baby born in between. By the time I was done that draft, my littlest son was starting to crawl and my oldest was halfway through his first year at school. By the second, I'd signed with a wonderful agent who believed in the project and encouraged me to keep working. By the third, I was back to teaching full-time. By the last one, my middle boy was in school too and most people in my life recognized that writing was something I did.

About halfway along, I wrote this post about the whole process and my hopes for this book. I never counted the hours as I was writing, but I know there were a lot of them - time alone, time away from my family, time not doing other things. A lot was poured into it. My husband earned thirty-six imaginary gold medals for Best Husband of a Writer, one for each month, and all the days within it, that he shooed me away to write.

I know there are more drafts to come, but for now the novel has gone from being written to being read, if only by a select few. I know finishing a novel shouldn’t be the end goal in itself, but right now it feels pretty good.

A Collection of Life Lists, Teenager Style

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One of the final assignments in the Grade 12 English class I teach is called You. It consists of two tasks: the first is to write a letter to a future version of yourself, and the second to curate a list of 50 things you want to do in life. The attention the kids pay to their lists never ceases to amaze. I teach at an alternative high school, and our students face a mishmash of hardships - poverty, family issues, legal troubles, addiction, mental health struggles, young parenthood, or maybe just that vague inability to fit in, to participate in a system made of rules that seem haphazard, or worse, rigged for failure.

And yet these kids - often with their smoke-stinky clothes or their yo missss version of a greeting, their sense of the world stacked against them – they still have much to say about how one should live life. Their lists are filled with goodness, with pure dreaming, with humour and empathy and the most wrenching efforts at self-acceptance. They are a heartbreaking, humbling joy to read.

With my students’ kind permission, I’ve taken some goals from each of the lists I received this year to share.

Here they are, verbatim:

Sleep out in nature at least once. Real nature, not a park

Learn more about homeopathy

Quit drinking Order (then of course eat) lobster at a ballin restaurant

Write a whole book of poetry

Throw a crazy ass house party but not at my own house

Reconnect with my father

Plant a tree in that huge crack in the cement in front of my building

Be the first person in my family to get a higher education

Sell one of my paintings to someone who will hang it in their house

Shower in a waterfall

Tell someone I love them, for real

Meet a famous person and tell them fame means nothing

Learn to pick friends who mean me no harm

Give an abandoned pet a loving home

Master a soufflé

Swim in every ocean

Cuddle with a panda bear

Donate money to the food bank

Learn yoga moves

Sleep more

Worry less

Find peace

Versions: All the People I Want to Be

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I’ve spent the past two months in some varying degree of ill-health, overcome by strep throat that came and went and came back, then went again and came back. For a week in early May, I spent days in bed in a fevered haze, unable to swallow and plagued by weird half-dreams - at one point I swear Don Draper came in to serve me iced lemonade. Also, my overheated brain began shooting out epiphanies. Life Stuff. Most of these epiphanies related to time, being busy, managing time, too much to do, not enough time, stressing about time, to-do lists. Blah blah blah. Reading over my previous blog posts, this seems to be the theme of my life. I see now that I wear the “busy mom” persona like a cross, knocking my way through each day making sure every single person knows just how much I have going on.

Screw it. As the fever broke and I returned to normal/diminished brain function, the first thing I did was consult the calendar. Step One: Cancel Everything. All plans, erased. For the foreseeable future, my days will be reduced to three things: Writing, Teaching, Family. My life is nothing but WTF.  (ha)

Step Two: Dial down the dreaming.  It turns out, I still have a million versions of my future mapped out in my brain. If you ask me what I want to be in twenty years, around the time I’m pushing sixty, I’ve still got as many answers as my four year old does. He wants to murder skeletons and zombies, and he wants to be an astronaut and a dancer, and of course he wants to drive a garbage truck. He’s even got me intrigued by that notion. As he’s oft pointed out in his little person way, you’d see some cool s**t if you drove a garbage truck.

I don't really want to drive a garbage truck. But when the Leafs made the playoffs, I was reminded that I really do want to be a sportscaster. I know a lot about sports, hockey in particular. I can talk no-touch icing and the politics of the crease, and I’ve got blond hair and a vaguely husky voice. I could totally hold my own sandwiched between Ron McLean and Glenn Healy at that glass desk. I could do that job.  I always wanted to do that job. What happened to that dream?

The trouble is, that wasn't the only one. In my twenties I also considered medical school. Sometimes that one still bubbles up too. The fantasy involves me going to medical school now (which is easy and just whizzes by), becoming a doctor then getting a part-time job in the ER. I work twelve hours or less a week in a harried but heroic scene with a George Clooney doppelganger by my side, taking pulses and shouting orders to the nurse. There’s not a lot of blood and everyone lives. That would be a great life, right? It's not entirely impossible.

Then there's politics. I've always thought about that. I’m cool with being in front of people and I speak broken Francais. In Grade 12 I bet someone $100 I’d one day be Prime Minister. These days, in the spirit of easy-act-to-follow, I imagine myself running for mayor. How hard can it be to build a utopia? If I was mayor, we’d have subways all the way to Barrie and every streetcar would have lemonade stands and a jazz quartet at the back. Drivers would reach out their car windows to high five cyclists and vegans and abattoir employees would band together to turn parking lots into playgrounds and plant trees up and down the length of every major highway.

If was I Mayor, though, I probably wouldn’t have a lot of free time to take up curling, which diminishes my odds of making the 2018 or 2022 Winter Olympics. I always figured I’d make the Olympics someday. Ideally I'd win a medal too, but at this point I figure just getting there would be pretty cool. Given my age and level of fitness, curling’s probably my only hope.

Then I see what all my friends are doing (Facebook is awesome/horrible for that), and I want to follow them to greatness. I want to be a therapist, or make dresses, or run 10K really really fast, or move my family to another country, work abroad, bake homemade bread, become a professional photographer, or an actor, or open a restaurant. I want to renovate houses and then get my own TV show as the quirky woman contractor who renovates houses. I want to be a world-class rapper like Macklemore, but still have time for curling.

Likely this is the effect of approaching forty, the early throes of midlife. Life now necessitates that I shed some versions of myself, not in a death approaches way, but because I want to be good at what I'm actually doing. I love teaching and I love writing. I love having some time on my hands. Ya, so I'm probably never going to be a doctor, or a sportscaster, or an Olympic curler. Oh well. Let those be someone else’s glory. I'll live vicariously through them. Again, Facebook is good/bad for that.

(I could totally still be mayor though.)

A Letter to My Former Self: The Truth About First Drafts

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Last year, on February 29th, I finished the first draft of my novel. If I could send a note back in time, a congratulatory letter to my first-draft-finishing self, here's what it would say...
Dear Amy,

Well done! You have finished the first draft of your novel. I know, right? Amazing. You feel quite good about yourself. I've been there. I'm right there with you. You feel it's quite fitting that this should happen on a Leap Day, don't you? Because a completed first draft is a rare enough thing. You are imagining the sheer and unprecedented scope of the publishing contract headed your way. You're narrating a version of the phone call to come from Steven Spielberg who simply *must* buy the film rights to this novel and any future ones you write.

Fun, isn't it? It's a fun time.

I really do want you to be happy. Of course I mean to congratulate you. But I am also the Ghost of Writerly Future hoping to shed some light on what's to come. Calibrate expectations, if you will. A reality check. Let's call it: The Truth About First Drafts.

For you, the journey begins tomorrow. Tomorrow, you will have the draft printed and bound and you will pick it up at the printing place and it will sit heavy and book-like in your hands. This will feel glorious. A Life Moment. You will pass it to your husband at the dinner table and he will weigh it on open palms, and he will do that slow nod thing he does when he's absorbing something momentous.

And after the kids are in bed, you will cozy up on the couch with your printed first draft and glass of Pinot Grigio, and you will open it to a random page and read a sentence out loud. Not bad, you'll think. Then you'll flip to another page and read another sentence, but this time it will make you shudder. You might even groan. Eleven more flips and eleven more shudder/groans later, you'll snap the book closed and chug the Pinot. A deep dread will try to well up inside you, but you'll jam it back down. You'll decide to put the book in a drawer for a while... you know, to give yourself some time to bask.

Over the next few weeks, your sense of accomplishment will be slowly replaced by a gnawing sense of impending doom. People will hear of your feat - you wrote a novel? - and congratulate you profusely. When can I read it? they'll ask. Soon! You'll say, but really you'll be thinking never, you'll NEVER read it, as those horrible sentences you spied in that first flip through churn in your gut like bile. You'll resist the frequent urge to pull it from the drawer and burn it ceremoniously in a roaring bonfire of some sort.

Eventually, you'll feel ready to have a go at it again. The experience of starting a second draft will be on par with looking at your naked body in the mirror right after giving birth; that bit of pride at what you've done overpowered by the dawning horror of all the work yet to come. You'll find yourself craving wine and chocolate then looking over at the clock to see it's only 9:38am. This will not be a good time. The early days of the second draft are a dark time. Know that now. Accept it.

The second draft will take three months. Upon completion, it will be incrementally better than the first. The third draft will take two months. The mathematics, at this point, will look promising. Each draft gets faster! Easier! Then you'll give that third draft to a professional, who will outline between 165-286 changes you need to make. And so, the fourth draft will take five months. Two spent sitting at your computer, often just staring, sometimes playing online Scrabble against other writers working on their fourth drafts, sometimes crafting witty emails to famous people you'll never meet. The last three months of those five, you'll actually write.

Today is February 28th. Today, I am almost done the fourth draft. I can't say happy anniversary to you, because there is no February 29th this year. Also, I see now that a first draft, while certainly an accomplishment, amounts to half the work at best. I'm sure you feel differently. Of course you do. You still want me to congratulate you. It's still February 29th for you, that magical day, the first draft of your first novel finally written. And since you haven't read it over yet, you're still blissfully unaware that it's a complete pile of shit.

Please don't be discouraged. By the end of the fourth draft, you will feel the book is pretty good. You'll actually consider showing it to others. You'll have shed all illusions about what it takes to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, which is a good thing. You'll no longer be picturing Steven Spielberg showing up at your door with a bouquet of daisies and a cheque for $4.5 million. But you will feel like you persevered.

Yours,

Amy

What Does 5am Look Like?

In three weeks, I return to full-time teaching after two years off to have a baby and finish my MFA. So I find myself lately staring at the calendar and trying to plot out when, in any given week that includes 40+ hours of work and all the other life stuff like kids + meals + marriage + friends + exercise + episodes of Girls and Homeland, I’m going to sit down and write.

In order to be a productive writer and a happy human, I need to spend between 10-15 hours a week writing or pretending to write. The calendar doesn’t lie… my days are going to be really full once I go back to work, and the only open slot is the morning. And by morning, I mean before anything else happens. Before my kids wake up. And my kids wake up at seven. The part of the morning most of us prefer to call night.

I have a theory that the secret to success in pretty much anything is the willingness to wake up early. Successful people often make use of those dark and cold hours that unfold while sane people sleep. If you read about the lives of Olympic athletes and CEOs and Barack Obama and UN Envoys and even many a successful writer, very few of them describe their routine as rolling out of bed at 8:08am and arriving to work 42 minutes later with morning breath and their faces still lined with pillow creases. They talk about 4am, 5am, 6am. They talk about “relishing the quiet” and “all they accomplish” in those early first hours. They all get up early and love it. By the time I’m reaching for the Shreddies, they’ve already put in four hours of toil. A**holes.

(I also have a theory that waking up at 5am will turn me into a troll. A mean, withered, exhausted, ugly-on-the-inside-and-on-the-outside troll.)

Any which way, starting in February, I’ll be waking up early two or three days a week to write. I hope it will keep me in the game, keep my pen to the page as I devote the rest of my workday to teaching, a job I love and am not ready to give up any time soon. This is the only way to do both.

Either it works and I’m able to keep up with 10-15 hours a week of writing on top of everything else, or I do become a troll. Or both. We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted.

Didn't we almost have it all...

Sometimes I waste time in a highly symbolic way. Today, for example, I searched online for quotes on motivation, figuring if I put some into a Word document in a really cool font, printed it out and pinned it up in front of me as I tried to get things done, I’d magically stop procrastinating. It didn't work. I’m aware lately that I give off an air of competence. I appear to be a person who gets shit done. I certainly don’t feel like that person. With the MFA complete, I get the same question a lot. How did you do it?

The answer(s)?

  1. I don’t know.
  2. With a lot of help.
  3. I'm a deadline kind of person.
  4. It was hard.

The truth is, I’m a bad procrastinator. I get easily overwhelmed. I hate pressure, but I seem to need it in order to finish a task. Really, I’m not quite sure how anything gets done.

The other truth: I find people who have it all together all the time kind of boring. The sort of people who have their Christmas presents wrapped before December is even upon us (I haven’t even started shopping…), who finish essays then stick them in drawers to await their actual due date. How is it even possible to function when you don’t have the fire of panic nipping at your ass?

I don’t want to be hard on myself... I know I’ve accomplished a good amount in my life. I have three healthy kids and I did finish that damn MFA. I occasionally exercise and we eat decently enough in my house. But a lot of that has to do with the people around me. My husband is an insanely patient and hardworking person. My extended family is helpful and supportive. I alone am never on top of things. Ever. That’s never, ever happened. Our house is almost always a mess. I’ve never, ever experienced all the laundry folded and put away at once. The cup holder in my car is disgusting. But, I do my taxes and I stay in touch with friends and my husband and I get out for the odd night. I write. I’m writing. I’m trying. It’s not that bad.

Last year, after my third son was born, we went through a period where things were truly overwhelming. We had three small children, my husband worked full-time and I still had to write because my thesis due date was looming. So how did I do it? Like this: I showed up to my cousin’s wedding with one son in track pants covered in holes and grass stains. My husband sent our oldest to a birthday party with an already-opened Pez dispenser as the gift. Our baby got bathed, but usually by the babysitter who’d notice on Monday that he was wearing the same onesie she’d put him in on Friday. We were forced to let some (many) things go so other things could stay. It felt like we were treading water in a choppy lake. It also felt somehow important not to hide that from people, to polish things up and make it look easy when it wasn't. Facebook already does that for us. Look how awesome my life is! So, I tried to be honest. When asked how are you? I answered truthfully: I’m barely hanging on. How do I do it all? I don’t.

Things are better now, or maybe we’re just used to the chaos. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I pay a price for all the things I want. I want to be a writer, so I’ll never have enough time to exercise. I want to take my kids swimming, so my car will always be a mess. I hire babysitters and I rely heavily on my husband, my parents, my sisters and my friends. I. Can’t. Do. It. All.

I can’t do it all, at all, ever. But I can do some of it, sometimes. That will have to do.

The Next Big Thing

Thank you to the lovely and talented Daniel Perry (who recently finished the first draft of his short fiction collection!) for linking me into this chain. It's always fun to answer questions on stuff you're writing... a good way to pretend it exists outside of your own head/computer.

1. What is the working title of your book?

Still Mine

2.Where did the idea for the book come from?

Nowhere? I'm not sure. When I signed up for the 2010 Muskoka Novel Writing Marathon, a friend of mine suggested I have a go at writing a mystery/thriller. Over that weekend, I tossed out 10000 words (50 pages) of a novel about a missing woman. Who knew I had it in me? Amazingly, the novel won the fiction category in the contest, and the feedback from the judges was very positive. So I figured, keep at it...

3) What genre does it fall under?

Hard to say. Mystery. Literary Thriller.

4) Which actors would you choose to play the characters in a movie version?

Funny you ask! Because I've already got it all figured out. Helps with the visuals as I write.

Jennifer Lawrence as Clare.

Michael Fassbender as Malcolm.

Jessica Chastain as Shayna.

Taylor Kitsch as Jared.

Tommy Lee Jones as Wilfred.

Lena Dunham as Sara.

Julie Christie as Louise.

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of the book?

Clare O'Dey arrives in a dying mining town to search for a missing woman she's never met.

6) Will the book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have an agent - Chris Bucci with Anne McDermid and Associates - so that's a good start. Will it be published? I hope so!

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I started the first dabbles in July 2010 at the marathon, and submitted the very first completed draft to my thesis advisor (the book was the thesis for my MFA) in February, 2012. But I had a baby in between, so I wasn't always writing. I'd say a year. But now I've been rewriting it for almost a year, and my crystal ball tells me it isn't nearly done. I'm guessing three years will pass between first word on the page and the day I decide it's done. Most writers will probably agree that the first draft amounts to 40% (if that) of the total work.

8) What other books would you compare yours to?

If my book were published, I would ask Dennis Lehane and Kate Atkinson to read it and hope they didn't find it a piece of s**t.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I had to write something for my MFA. Something book-length. That was a good incentive. In 2000 I did the year-of-travel thing and somewhere in a desert in Australia I sat around a fire with 5 other twenty-somethings and wrote out a bucket list. Number one on that list was to write a book. That was also good incentive. Numbers 2 was to get married and 3, to have kids. Done and done! However, number 18 was to run a marathon and number 32 was to see the Leafs win a Cup -  so I guarantee you the streak will end.

10) What else about your book might pique a reader's interest?

The story has a lot of plot, which is hard to manage as a writer. Writing this book has exponentially increased my respect for mystery and thriller writers. Weaving your way through all the plot and red herrings and false leads, etc... but also making room for characterization and good writing. Too hard.

I'm hoping any reader will keep reading because s/he wants to know how it ends, and then when it ends, s/he won't want to throw the book across a room in disgust.

Also, it's the first book in a series. I plan to write more of them.

Now, go read:

CRG (Chris Graham)

and

Jonathan Mendelsohn

A story of mine in an anthology (where dreams do come true...)

My short story "The Roundness" has been a gift that keeps on giving. It won the 2011 Writers Union short story award, and then a few months later was a finalist for the Exile/Vanderbilt contest. All the finalists for the Vanderbilt have been published in an anthology now available on Amazon right here. If you write short stories, I urge you to enter the Exile/Vanderbilt short fiction contest. If you are chosen a finalist, you will get to go to galas and garden parties, you will get to do readings, you will meet Gloria Vanderbilt and you will be made to feel, however briefly, like a certifiable writer. Here is a picture taken of me with Gloria Vanderbilt at a party at the Callaghan house (as in Morley and Barry) in Toronto last June.

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On Writing & Success

A dear friend of mine spent many years as an editor with a large publishing company. Her time there coincided with my own coming-of-age as a writer. We had our kids at the same time and survived our mat leaves tethered to each other. Over the years this friend, we’ll call her K, has given me advice on many things, the writing life included. And it is excellent advice.

This is it: As a writer, you must enjoy the process. You must hinge your sense of success on the writing itself, because the end result is out of your hands. As I see it, no matter how often or how well I write, I can’t really control what happens to my work when (if, I should say – a big if) it gets published and reaches the outside world. I have no control over reviews or the size or reaction of the readership. I can blog and tour and sign books for everyone I meet, but ultimately I can’t really control whether my book rises to the top of the lists or takes a nosedive right off the shelf. If it makes it to the shelf at all.

Every writer knows that the odds of getting published are slim, but as the stigma around self-publishing fades away, we are no longer forced to see that pile of rejection letters as the endnote. If the agents and publishers reject us, we can slap the book up on Amazon ourselves, right? There are the stories of the writers who’ve gone it alone and sold millions of e-books. I saw a documentary about a young woman in the States who bought a mansion with the proceeds from her self-published novels. And then I read that the average self-published book sells fifty copies. The math likely looks like this: For every self-published writer who sells a million books, there are probably a million who sell less than fifty.

And for those who do get the golden ticket, the publishing contract, the statistics aren’t terribly different. Most published books sell less than a thousand copies, and most writers must keep their day jobs. K has told me so many stories of emerging writers in that sweet honeymoon phase – those months before the book is about to be published, where it’s okay to be optimistic because the possibilities are still endless. Of course these writers are hopeful that theirs will be one of the 5% of published books that actually soars, that pays their rent and secures them a writer’s life for the foreseeable future. But most of them won’t be.

Depressing, right? Why bother?

I imagine most of us bother because we must, because it really is about the writing and nothing else. If you think about it, K is actually advocating optimism. She is telling me not to let anyone else dictate my version of writing success. Right now, I am waiting in that void where my book has been drafted and sent out to professionals for their thoughts – my grand dream is still intact. Of course I’m not immune to dreaming big, to picturing myself walking the red carpet at the premiere of the film adaptation. But I understand that beyond my own hard work in writing it, I have no control over what happens once the book leaves the confines of my computer. If it gets published, garners attention, wins awards, becomes a bestseller and a blockbuster movie... well, I'm sure that would be awesome. I'd take it, and I'd redefine my version of success accordingly. But for now, my success comes simply from having written it.

I first started writing the novel two years ago, around the time I got pregnant with my third son. Over that winter, I found little chunks of time to chip away at it, hauling my pregnant self through the snow to the library, and onwards for months and months though I had three small boys at home and a vast life outside of writing to balance. It was really hard, but I found a way to do it. Now, it is a book, 86,000 words, printed out and thick and heavy in my hands. I invented people who now seem very real to me. I made mistakes in the writing and in the story, and then I went back and tried to fix them. I am still working on it, still trying to make it better. I learned a huge lot about the writing process. This is my success. Even if this novel ends up in a drawer, it nonetheless remains a life dream that I’ve accomplished. I wrote a book. I think that book is pretty good. And so I’m a writer, whether the wider world ever knows it or not.