John Sibley Williams is the editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies and the author of nine collections, including Controlled Hallucinations (2013) and Disinheritance (2016). A five-time Pushcart nominee and winner of the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors' Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry, John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Midwest Quarterly, december, Third Coast, Baltimore Review, Nimrod International Journal, Hotel Amerika, Rio Grande Review, Inkwell, Cider Press Review, Bryant Literary Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
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About the Book:
A lyrical, philosophical, and tender exploration of the various voices of grief, including those of the broken, the healing, the son-become-father, and the dead, Disinheritance acknowledges loss while
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Thanks for letting us interrogate you! Can you give us a go-for-the-gut answer as to why you wanted to be an author?
I’m lucky to have been passionate about books since childhood. Perhaps it’s in part due to my mother reading novel after novel over her pregnant belly every day. Perhaps it’s in part due to my own restlessness, my need to make things, and my love of words. But I began writing short stories in middle school, and I continued in that genre until my early twenties. A handful of those stories found publication in literary magazines, which was eye-opening and oddly humbling.
I was 21 when I wrote my first poem. Before that, I had never enjoyed reading poetry and had certainly never considered writing one. It was summer in New York and I was sitting by a lake with my feet dragging through the current caused by small boats when suddenly, without my knowing what I was doing, I began writing something that obviously wasn’t a story. What was it? Impressions. Colors. Emotions. Strange images. I didn’t have any paper, so I used a marker to write a series of phrases on my arm. Then they poured onto my leg. Then I realized I needed paper. I ran back to the car, took out a little notebook, and spent hours emptying myself of visions and fears and joys I don’t think I even knew I had. That was 17 years ago. Since that surreal and confusing moment by that little city lake, I’ve written poetry almost every day.
Tell us (we won’t tell promise!) is it all it’s cracked up to be? I mean what are the perks and what are the demands?
About being a writer? I guess I don’t think of it in terms of pros/cons, perks/demands. If you love to write, to mold unique images, to craft meaning from a blank page, then there are no cons. Sleepless nights? Banging your head against the wall when the words don’t come? A steady stream of rejections? They are all part of the process. In fact, sometimes going sleepless ends up birthing strange new ideas. The frustration of writer’s block may end up forcing you to try something different, something outside your normal comfort zone. Although writing does involve plenty of suffering and self-doubt and dark introspection and failure, those normally negative emotions just reinvest it with more meaning. If writing were easy, it wouldn’t be an art. So yes, writing is absolutely worth every single second.
Which route did you take – traditional or self-published – and can you give us the nitty gritty low down on what’s that like?
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of big poetry publishers, so mid-size and small presses are really the best fit for poets who are not seeking self-publishing. Although plenty of great work comes out of self-publishing companies, that particular road is not for me. My previous chapbooks and my debut full length collection were all published by small presses staffed by passionate editors. I feel very lucky to have worked with them. For this new collection, Disinheritance, I sought a slightly more prominent press, and I was honored to be accepted pretty quickly by Apprentice House Press, a great publisher run by Loyola University.
What’s the snarkiest thing you can say about the publishing industry?
Authors do love to complain, don’t they? And I absolutely understand. We pour so much time, sweat, maybe some blood and tears into a manuscript. We run it by critique groups and polish it, maybe hire a copyeditor. We believe in our work. Yet there is always that long string of rejections. There is that vast world of uncertainty as we wait months or even longer for our favorite presses to get back to us. Maybe we contact literary agents first, and maybe we don’t receive a reply. It’s a huge, messy business filled with self-doubt. However, I don’t feel comfortable complaining about any of that. Think about it from the editor or agent’s point of view. They receive many hundreds or even many thousands of manuscripts per month. To give each manuscript a proper review, it’s going to take some time. And, of course, most manuscript will be rejected. If a publisher is going to sink their own resources into a book, they better really believe in it.
So, in the end, there is only one aspect of the major publishing industry that really frustrates me: their selection of manuscripts. By this I mean, major publishing houses only care about sales, not creative integrity or even creative genius. Countless amazing manuscripts are rejected every day simply because the publisher doesn’t feel they can sell tens of thousands of copies. When this happens, the literary marketplace stagnates. You see the same already-famous authors rehashing the same old stories. Similar to Hollywood, the New York City publishers tend to hedge their bets and only work with guaranteed blockbusters. On one level, I do understand their perspective. But it really does stifle creativity and silence many very talented authors whose voices deserve to be heard.
Tell us for real what your family feels about you spending so much time getting your book written, polished, edited, formatted, published, what have you?
I’d love to give you some horror story or snarky answer here, but honestly my family is more than happy to give me the time I need to write, revise, publish, market. It’s not always easy to squeeze enough time out of the day, but apart from family, writing comes first, and my loved ones know this. Last month I became a father (of twins!), so I have to be inventive (and often sleepless) in order to find that writing time, but that’s okay. We write because it’s what we love, right?
How about the social networks? Which ones do you believe help and which ones do you wish you could avoid?
With book marketing, everything helps. Though admittedly not every avenue will result in enough direct sales to cover the cost or the author’s time, emerging authors should probably focus more on visibility, exposure, and expanding their fan base than actual sales. In my experience, you never know what review you get, what video you create, what ad you book, what event you host, etc. will be the ‘big break’ we’re all looking for. So all social media can be beneficial. Personally, I only use Facebook and Goodreads, while hosting a YouTube channel with readings and trailers. The various other outlets, though absolutely worthwhile, would swallow up far too much of my writing time.
Book sales. Don’t you just love them (or lack of?)? How are you making the sales happen for you?
Well, poetry has never been a major seller, plus studies show that there are more people writing poetry now than actually reading it, so sales expectations should always be tempered. I won’t bore you with my entire marketing strategy, but here’s a short list of a few avenues I’m taking with Disinheritance: plenty of readings and workshops, targeted advertising in poetry magazines, an expansive blog tour, indie bookstore outreach, local library system outreach, social media campaign, plenty of YouTube videos, mailing postcards to my lengthy contact list, submitting to quality small press/poetry book contests, sending complimentary copies to famous poets whose work I admire, and a few other things. We’ll have to see how it all pans out with my first annual royalty check from the publisher.
Okay, too much sugar for you today! Here’s a nice cup of Chamomile tea and come on over and sit under the cabana and watch the waves roll in. Now…can you tell us what you love about being a published author and how all those things above doesn’t matter because it’s all part of the whole scheme of things and you wouldn’t have it any other way?
Definitely the most rewarding aspect of being a published author is reader reaction. We have all read poems or novels that truly moved us, that made us reconsider ourselves, that illuminated the beauty and power of language. It has been indescribably rewarding to know my work has touched others in that way. When a total stranger who perhaps stumbled across your book or had it recommended to her contacts you out of the blue to say how much it inspired her, that is a potent feeling. When you’re giving a reading and you can see that glow in the audience’s eyes, that is unforgettable. Even after around 50 or so readings across the country, I am touched every single time someone goes out of their way to express their thoughts on my work. That’s what it’s all about. Trying to use language that lifts up off the page and resonates with people.