In the Soup: Sean McDonald and Monica West on Publishing During, and After, a Pandemic
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell
Editor and publisher Sean McDonald and novelist Monica West join co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to discuss how the “reopening” of the country is affecting authors and the publishing industry. First, McDonald, founder of MCD Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, talks about publishing in the pandemic, and how that experience may shape the industry going forward. Then, West reads from her debut novel, Revival Season, and shares what it’s been like to launch a book during (fingers crossed!) the pandemic’s waning days.
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With Sean McDonald
Whitney Terrell: To quote Gilda Radner, “It’s always something.” The world never says to publishers: “We have nothing going on and all we want to do is pay attention to your books.” But there are degrees. When we published The Good Lieutenant, Trump was the story. But I personally felt lucky about that compared to 2001, when I published my first novel right before 9/11. In your years in publishing, where does the COVID pandemic rank in terms of disruptive events in publishing books?
Sean McDonald: In terms of disruption, I can’t really think of anything more. The last year overall, we’ve just been through so much. COVID itself has been insane on its own, and the shutdown. But then the murder of George Floyd, the protests. The election…
WT: All these things were such gigantic stories. We are focusing on COVID here, but yeah, any of those stories would have dominated any news cycle.
SM: We knew we were coming into an election last year, but we didn’t know anything that was going to be surrounding it. The whole shutdown has been, on a personal level, more disruptive than anything I can think of.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: It’s funny to even think about the word “disruption.” It’s not even a disruption anymore, it’s an altered state of normal that we have to plan for. And so I was really curious to talk to you about the practicalities of publishing under these very strange conditions, this uncharted territory, and based on what Whitney has told me about you, as an editor, I’m assuming you approached the books you published during this strange time with the same heart and excitement and conviction as usual, but it’s a whole different toolbox, probably that you had to use. I’d love to hear you talk about how you had to change stuff.
SM: Everything feels different. The biggest thing for me has been the difference, and the utter inability to really imagine what it’s like on the other end of the screen, or whatever it is, for everyone else, just because lives have become so different. You just don’t know what it is that’s going on outside your viewfinder, and I think you feel much more sensitive to it. It feels weird to be approaching anyone trying to convince them to read something, or to write about something. It often feels inappropriate. As we’ve tried to get closer to what everyone keeps calling a new normal, I think we’ve gotten more used to having those conversations, but that context is just so radically different. Everything feels harder that way. You have to push through so much that you don’t know. I think when we were all in offices, there were some assumptions about what everyone’s days were like, and what they were focusing on and able to focus on. And that just doesn’t feel like the case at the moment. All the tools are different—those basic things like knowing where to send things to people, how to reach them, when to reach them, when you’re going to be able to get something done, when someone else is gonna get something done. It all feels completely jumbled from where we were a year ago.
VVG: So I’m really curious about calendars. This thing hit and you’re like, how long is this going to last? Did you go back and Jenga your publishing schedule around? Did books get moved? Or did you have to allot more time for stuff? How did time work? As my friend Lacy Johnson says, “time is a soup.”
SM: Yeah, soup works. Lots of things got moved. The printers all got hit by COVID at least as hard as anyone else in the industry. They were working with diminished staff. They were trying to do social distancing, so they had fewer people there. So printing schedules fell way behind, so we had to shift everything based on when we could expect printings to come in. They’re still not back to what was “normal.” That’s definitely changed a lot of the way we figure out, not so much when to publish, but how much to print and what to expect from each publication. It’s changed the way we have to think about the way things are going to work just because the turnaround times are different. That was a huge disruption in the way we publish. Never before have we just shifted books wholesale, trying to predict when things were going to be normal again, predict when we are going to be able to get books. The big thing was just moving things by months or often longer.
WT: Many, many more important things happened bad in the world during COVID than things that happened in the publishing industry to us. It was a terrible, terrible pandemic, but our show is, at least partly, about this industry. You can’t really complain about a book launch being disrupted while millions of people are dying across the globe. But one can feel, if you’re an author, private grief and uncertainty for a lot of work being put in doubt. That was how I felt after publishing the novel that I published right before 9/11. And I talked to my editor at the time, Ray Roberts, about how that event changed or didn’t change things for the book. Did you have conversations like that with authors?
SM: Yeah, those have been ongoing conversations. They’ve evolved as the situation has evolved. At first, we really did think we would be back in a couple of weeks, and it was just going to be a serious but brief disruption. It feels silly now, but those were heartbreaking moments, canceling a few stops of a book tour, trying to reconfigure some things on the fly. Every author I’ve published, we’ve had some long conversations about the situation and what to expect and what we can’t expect. It’s this crazy thing where we’re all in it together, but what we’re in together is being isolated. It’s hard to convey a sense of collective expectation. But I think everyone understands this is a crazy time to be publishing a book. It’s a crazy time to be trying to communicate with lots of people. And so everyone understands that there’s even more of a kind of lottery quality to it, which is heartbreaking. Yes, there are horrible things going on. At the same time, people have spent years and years of their lives on these books. It’s hard to be putting them out there without the confidence of knowing what’s going to work and what’s not going to work.
With Monica West
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Your book has been out in the world for five whole days as of today, it was published on the 25th and we’re talking on May 30th. Congratulations! I can’t help but note that while the Hortons can hit the road, you can’t, or at least not quite yet. And we’re speaking of what I might describe as a hinge in time— the pandemic shut so many things down including book tours. Now they’re kind of starting to open up again. We’ve just been talking to Whitney’s editor, Sean McDonald, about this, but we want to hear from you about how it feels for a writer. How has that uncertainty affected your experience of planning for and promoting your work and sharing this thing that has been with you for so long and now is ready to kind of go out into the world, a different world than maybe the one you expected?
Monica West: So I first sold this book pre-pandemic in February of 2019. Everyone has this idea of what a tour is going to look like, what publication is going to look like. I remember when I first found out that my date was going to be spring 2021, I found myself being really disappointed: ‘Oh, that’s so far, I have to wait two years for the book to come out?’ And then a pandemic hit. And I was like, ‘Oh, no, please take as long as you need for this book to come out until things get a little bit more normal.’ So there was a ton of uncertainty when I was talking to my publicist and my marketing team. The beginning of January was when we first planned out what this was going to look like, and even then they were saying, we hope in person, we’re not sure, wait and see, let’s find out. And so when I finally got tour dates, I think that maybe it was the beginning of May when I knew for sure that things were going to be virtual, no in-person events. I understood it. I’m disappointed, of course — it’s really nice to see people in person and do things in person. What I’d love to do is something maybe later in the summer that feels a little bit farther away from the pandemic. It’s been an experience publishing a book during this time, but it does feel nice to be publishing it in what feels like the waning part of the pandemic as opposed to the beginning. But the one [of many things] that I’ve learned in the pandemic is people are still reading a lot and that’s been really lovely to see.
Whitney Terrell: The vaccines would have been announced by January, but nobody knew how quickly they would start, or when mask mandates would start to fall. So it seems incredibly hard for your publicist to try to guess about that. Did you have those kinds of conversations?
MW: It’s funny our conversation—well, it’s not funny—was on January 6, so the day of the insurrection.
WT: Oh my God.
MW: So right around 10 my time is when that conversation happened, and then the insurrection started happening later on that day. There was so much people didn’t know about when the vaccines would roll out—I live in California—what it would be like to travel to some states where I’d be having readings and what other stores’ rules are… And so we did have those conversations, I think it was so soon then to know what vaccines were going to look like, what roll out was going to be. I just put my faith in them.
WT: You ended up having to do an online tour for the most part, has it opened up any opportunities that you might not have otherwise gotten to do?
MW: What’s been really lovely about doing a Zoom tour, an online tour has been—I think a lot about people, my parents, for example, who live in Ohio, and the fact that my parents have been at my events, and that would have never happened pre-Zoom. Even my students, for example, my students in San Francisco can log into things. I had a secondary event with Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and I had students, my parents, friends of mine who could have never traveled. That’s a really nice thing—it removes that barrier of travel for people. And the other thing I appreciate about the Zoom experience is that there are cities that you would never travel to on a book tour, and there are people you’d never meet. A lot of people who may have never been to a book reading because they are in a city that doesn’t get tours very often, [got] to actually log into an experience [and see] what it feels like to have somebody read and to have the experience of buying books.
WT: Spoken like a true Midwesterner, or at least one brought up in the Midwest, because now all these people that you’re living around in California are just like, well, they have them in California, why would they need to have them anywhere else? We don’t need to have a book reading anywhere else!
MW: [laughs] Exactly. I actually had a really funny experience—I was teaching here in California when I got into Iowa, and I was teaching 10th grade. I told them I was leaving, I was going to Iowa. And the first thing was, they were so sad. And the second question was, where’s Iowa? And so the middle of my 10th grade class, became a geography class about, Hey, kids in California, there are things outside of California and people who live there. And there are more than just two states in this country of California in New York. So it was also a geography lesson in the midst of an English lesson.
VVG: That’s great. So much of what I remember about book tours, of course the pleasure of seeing my friends and loved ones in different cities, but also meeting a reader who would be really enthusiastic. It was funny to read [your book] and think about the conversation that we were going to have, because in some ways, it’s actually a road trip novel. And the Hortons are on this Evangelical trip. They’re Baptists, they travel and meet new people all the time. And I’m curious about how the experience of travel and meeting strangers is connected to Evangelical faith, and if you can talk a little bit about the challenges of writing about that kind of road trip.
MW: Part of the idea of travel that’s important to this kind of Evangelical faith that this family possesses is their mission is to save souls and convert as many people as possible. So this idea of proselytizing, spreading the word, spreading the gospel has to be something for them that spreads beyond their current little town in Texas. They have a lock on that place there, but so much of what they do is meeting new people on the road and these revival tents and these other cities that they go to in the summers. And so that’s part of it. The other part of it is there are these week-long events that this family’s here and then they just disappear. And so they’re not connected to the places where they go. And so there is this element of, we’re here, we have this mission to convert you and save you and heal you. And then we’re going to do it somewhere else. And we repeat the show again and again.
There are a few challenges of writing a book that takes place on the road. Number one was keeping this idea of this very confined, claustrophobic space fresh for a reader and fresh for myself. It’s a van, and it’s a van for a fair chunk of the novel. How do I make a van interesting? How do I make what’s happening in a van feel alive and different and not redundant and monotonous? I tried to focus a lot on the interactions in the van, and more where they get to and the places where they go, as opposed to being in this van for a really long time. I was trying to build up a lot of tension and make tension feel new each time they were in the van. Another challenge of writing this novel is, they’re nomads, moving around from place to place. So it was a ton of research, to try to get those places right where they go. And also try to show their interactions in these places in a way that felt authentic to the family, authentic to these places, and authentic to this faith that they’re trying to pass along to the people that they meet.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope. Photo of Monica West by Chickpea Photography.