Angie Abdou connects to her readers by staying grounded in the small town life of Fernie, B.C.
Angie Abdou is the author of the short story collection Anything Boys Can Do (2006), the 2011 Canada Reads finalist, The Bone Cage (2007), The Canterbury Trail (2011) and, most recently, Between (2014).
Julienne Isaacs: You have been published with a variety of small presses—Thistledown, Brindle & Glass, NeWest, and Arsenal Pulp Press. Small-press titles have to work hard to get attention. What kind of self-promotion has small-press publication entailed for you? How different are the marketing and promotion expectations on small-press authors versus authors publishing with major houses?
Angie Abdou: Since I have never been published with a big press, it’s a bit hard for me to compare. However, I have been exposed to big-publisher procedure when I bring certain writer friends to Fernie to speak about their work. In that situation, I often end up dealing with a publicist who makes sure we have suitable accommodation for the writer, lines up all transportation, and ensures that we will have a big enough audience to make the trip worth the author’s time and energy. That seems like such luxury! Even though I’ve been happy with each of my publishers, they have limited resources, and one publicist (at most) covers all of the writers. I, therefore, end up planning much of my own tour—if I want an extensive one, which seems necessary to get the book into readers’ hands. I sleep on friends’ couches. I fly on aeromiles. I juggle my schedule. I sometimes make mistakes and attend book events that aren’t worthwhile, in terms of time, inconvenience, energy or cost. I only realize how hard I’ve been busting my butt and the extent to which I really have been roughing it once I get invited to a festival—ah, the glamour, the luxury, the star treatment!
So is all the butt-busting worth it? I think it is. If I’m going to keep writing books—and some days that “if” is much bigger than other days—I need readers. A book involves several years of lonely work. Why do all that work if nobody is going to read the damn thing? I owe it to the book—and to myself for the time and effort I spend on the book—to do as much of that promotional activity as my energy allows.
Why do I feel like an extensive tour is necessary to find the book readers? Because the other significant difference between small presses and big ones is distribution. My books are not usually in airport bookstores, Walmarts, or Costcos. This lack of exposure used to bother me more than it does now. To be honest, I don’t see people lining up to buy books at any of those places. The airport bookstores couldn’t be emptier (I always check). Nonetheless, since readers won’t stumble upon my book in those places, I work as hard as I can to make likely readers aware of its existence. Plus, if I visit a store, I know the owner will get my book in stock. If owners hear me speak about the book, I have an opportunity to win over someone who will hand-sell the book for me.
JI: You are clearly at ease in the Twitterverse. How useful has Twitter been for you in marketing your books?
AA: My Twitter profile reads: “A fiction writer hiding out in the Canadian Rockies and making up for a real absence with a virtual presence.” It used to say trying to make up for a real absence, but after The Bone Cage was on Canada Reads, tweeters like @bookgaga suggested I needed an edit. So, yes, Twitter has been very useful for me. Some writers I admire very much—Dionne Brand, Steven Heighton, Miriam Toews, to name a few—have little to no activity on Twitter. I don’t feel like that is an option for me. Right out of the gates, I have less exposure than those writers, so I have to do what I can to create my own exposure (I nearly wrote “to expose myself”). Also, Fernie is a long, long way from Toronto (the heart of the Canadian publishing world), but Twitter gives me a presence in Toronto. I’ve been able to create a community of writers, readers, book journalists, and other publishing people. Even though my publishers are all in Western Canada and I live in British Columbia, when I arrive in Toronto I know there is a spot for me. I have wonderful publishing colleagues there and whenever I show up, my calendar is full.
JI: Speaking of, in what ways has Canada Reads been an important marketing platform for you, particularly with The Bone Cage?
Land ho! Canada Reads brings small press authors like Angie Abdou to the shores of success
AA: Canada Reads meant everything for me. When I showed up in Toronto for the festivities, Brian Francis said, “Canada Reads will change your writing life. Being a Canada Reads finalist opens doors.” He was right. Those glamorous festivals I mentioned above—I get invited because of Canada Reads. CBC brought attention to my books at a national level. That was a good bit of luck. Shortly after that, MacEwan University chose The Bone Cage as its book of the year, and that was one of the most magical experiences of my writing career: people reading the book everywhere I looked, floor-to-ceiling prints of the cover lining the hallways, students enacting scenes from the novel on the campus stage. I never wanted to wake up. The Canada Reads marketing machinery made people aware of the book to an extent that I, or a small press, could never have done.
JI: Do you think this year’s turmoil at the CBC might affect the future of institutions like Canada Reads? Could you speak to whether you think this would be positive or negative for the future of CanLit?
AA: The scandal has already affected Canada Reads. There is a new host, and the Canada Reads team is doing things differently. They played down the pre-show, public participation/voting aspect, which had come under much criticism in recent years. I think the CBC Books team is using the change to give Canada Reads a fresh look. I’m optimistically waiting to see what they do. The show was ready for a change. So, I’m not worried about that. I am, though, worried about the cuts. Great CBC book shows, like Shelagh Rogers’s The Next Chapter, are working on bare bones staff and with minimal resources. CBC shows do a tremendous job of building awareness of Canadian books and authors. Losing those shows—or cutting their budgets to near-death—would be a tragic blow to Canadian arts.
JI: There are plenty of examples of writers who take public performance too seriously (Kathleen Hale provides one entertaining example), but you seem to have a sense of humour about self-promotion. Do you find this part of your work life giving? Does it pay off for you creatively?
AA: When it comes to the promotional part of writing, I’m very lucky in that I’m an extrovert. That public performance part of being a writer energizes me. It’s the reward for those lonely years spent at my desk. So, yes, it’s very giving. When I wonder if the minimal payoff of a book justifies the work that goes into writing it, I think of those festivals and their wonderful communities, and I sit my butt down and start the next book. I want to be a part of that literary world, always.
JI: While we’re on the subject, I wanted to ask a final question about the balancing act of literary personality. How does Angie Abdou, the writer, juxtapose with Angie Abdou, the “brand?” How do you manage the tension between your creative work (which is done away from the public eye) and the exposure (or overexposure) that is contingent on success?
AA: Writing the book and promoting the book are two completely different things. I don’t even think about how I’m going to talk about the book until I’m done writing it. Figuring out what I have to say about a novel is a separate process—gruelling in its own way. Of course, it’s also very exhilarating to see a book find its way in the world. I love that stage where I’m finally able to gauge how audiences respond to my little inventions (meaning both my book and the spiel I create about the book). When I’m speaking about a new novel, I always take note of which stories generate interest and which jokes get laughs, so that my “book performance” is continually changing. That part is fun in a very different way than the part where I spend hours at my desk playing with my imaginary characters (who, unlike live audiences, almost always react the way I expect and want them to react).
As for Angie Abdou, the brand … Oh boy. I don’t know what to say about that. I can hear my husband laughing. The other day I was having a heady moment of texting with some “famous” people and talking about potentially exciting career developments. I shot my husband a note, euphorically updating him, and he responded, “Angie Abdou, can you get some milk on your way home from work?” Poof—heady moment gone. So, let’s just say there’s no Angie Abdou brand around my house. Just Ange. Or Mommy. Real life keeps me pretty grounded. I’ve been told that the groundedness is what readers, and tweeters, and Facebookers, respond to—that I’m real on social media and in-person. Readers don’t meet Angie Abdou, the brand. They meet Angie the small-town working mother. I don’t think of the promotional part as limelight—I think of it as leaving my tiny mountain town and getting myself out in the wide, exciting world to meet people, some of whom will hopefully like my books.