I recently did a web interview made up entirely of questions submitted by my readers. (If you’re interested, by the way, you can listen to that interview at http://bit.ly/i4hQz). I received some unusual questions, but there was one question I seem to get in every interview I do…
“How did you get so interested in bugs?”
I’m not interested in bugs. I’m interested in people.
Stories are always about people—good stories, anyway. It’s a simple fact of human nature that people are interested in people: what they think, how they feel, and the sometimes incomprehensible reasons they do the things they do. To be honest, we’re probably not as interested in other people as we are in ourselves, because stories about others give us insight into the workings of our own mysterious minds and hearts.
I would argue that it’s almost impossible to tell a story that isn’t about people. “Twilight” isn’t about vampires; it’s about feelings of alienation and the ecstasy of unfulfilled longing with a heaping helping of teenage angst piled on top. The “Harry Potter” stories aren’t about wizards and magic; they’re about friendship and loyalty and the desperate desire to believe that you are more than just an ordinary muggle. Even “March of the Penguins” isn’t about penguins; it’s about courtship and endurance and sacrificial dedication to our children.
The protagonist in five of my novels, Dr. Nick Polchak, is a forensic entomologist. Nick’s job involves the study of insects—the blowflies and flesh flies and carrion beetles that consume human bodies as they decompose. But my Bug Man stories are not about the bugs—they’re about a man who thinks he’s a bug. Why does he think that? Why would he want to? What’s wrong with him? What was it in his past that made him that way? Will he ever change? Can he? And is there a woman anywhere who could love a man like that? Anyone who has read one of my novels will tell you that that’s what my stories are really about. The bugs—well, they’re just bugs.
I imagine a lot of potential readers are turned off to my Bug Man stories before they ever read one. “I’m just not into bugs,” they probably say.
That’s okay. Neither am I.
Some social commentators mourn the loss of literacy in our culture. “People don’t read books anymore—they’re too busy sending tweets and posting comments.” Others point out that social media like Twitter and Facebook are an indicator that people are reading more than ever—they’re just reading different things.
There are even hopeful indicators that people are still reading books, like the fact that today more Americans hold library cards than ever before. That fact tells me what writers know all too well: People still read books—they just don’t buy them.
I’ve lost count of how many readers who’ve written to tell me, “I can’t wait to read your latest novel, but there are twelve ‘holds’ on it at the library.” Or, “I just loved your last book—I loaned it to all my friends.”
Don’t misunderstand—I’m thrilled that people loan my books and check them out from the library. Most writers, I believe, are more interested in circulation than sales. Given the choice between readership and reward, we’ll take readership every time. Unfortunately, the only indicator we have as to how well a book is circulating is how many copies have sold. The NY Times records best sellers, not best loaners.
I’ve often wondered if some of the most-circulated books have less-than-spectacular sales. It leads me to wonder: What is it that makes someone buy a book? How do readers choose between the book they borrow, the book they check out, and the book they want to own?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I get asked a lot of questions about my writing: how I choose my subject matter, how I do research, how a story forms in my mind, whether I'm certifiably insane or whether it's just a hobby... I'm hoping this blog will give me a chance to answer some of those questions and that it will give my readers a place to share their own opinions about whatever comes to mind. Is anybody out there in the blogoshpere? Post a comment and let us hear from you!