This past October my family and I moved to a small coastal town in Maine, not far from E.B. White’s home in North Brooklin. The roads here are narrow, with clapboard houses discreetly tucked away behind towering pine trees. It’s a quiet landscape. A writer’s landscape.
Amonth ago I wandered into a bookstore where Martha White, E.B. White’s granddaughter, was giving a talk about her grandfather. He was, she said, so painfully shy that he rarely made public appearances and detested interviews. He was such an introvert that he wouldn’t attend many of the family weddings.
That made me wonder what E.B. White would have thought about the new publishing paradigm. How would he have fared in a world where introverted authors are regularly called upon to be as suave as George Clooney and to shout from every social media rooftop? Books are such quiet things—created in silence, read in silence—yet publishing a book has become a very noisy business.
I’ve been noisy too. I felt like I had to be in order to connect with my readers. After all, the number of books being published has exploded in the past decade, while much of book marketing is done by the authors themselves. I had a blog where I tried to be transparent while giving away nothing. I tweeted and Facebooked, badly. As a writer your “voice” is your calling card; yet my voice was becoming indistinguishable from billions of other voices.
Enter David Heatley, a cartoonist and musician who has worked for the New York Times and the New Yorker. My publisher had assigned David to illustrate my new children’s book, Otis Dooda, Strange but True (Feiwel and Friends, June). I loved his work. His illustrations were edgy and raw. They looked like they might have been drawn by the smartest badass in the seventh grade. Soon after he finished the illustrations, I received an e-mail from him saying, “Hey, I’m writing a soundtrack for Otis Dooda. Want to hear?”
A soundtrack for a book? I had never heard of that. Was it a “thing”? Had I somehow overlooked a new form of promotion? I began to break out into a sweat.
But no. It was just something that David wanted to do.
A week later I listened to his first song. The effect was startling. It was as though Otis Dooda, which hadn’t even been published yet, already had an anthem. It captured the book’s energy in a way that words alone couldn’t. I realized that David had hit upon the secret of navigating this new world of publishing: you only make the noise you really feel like making.
More songs began to pour in. David recorded them in the wee hours of the morning, so that the first thing I did each day was to check my e-mail for a new tune. Some of the songs were hip-hop, others bluesy, and all of them funny as hell and musically brilliant. The soundtrack immediately upped the book’s cool-quotient too. My eight-year-old son, who has always been unimpressed by the fact that his mom writes kids’ books, suddenly took an interest. He begged me to play the songs for his classmates. I did and the kids went wild. My son began singing Otis Dooda songs at breakfast, in the car, while playing with Legos. Some of his classmates must have been doing the same thing, because when I met one of their moms in the supermarket, she greeted me by singing, “It’s big, it’s green, it’s a party machine!”
The checkout lady gave her the stink eye.
If E.B. White were writing in 2013, would there be a Charlotte’s Web trailer and an @SomePig Twitter account? I doubt it. Yet in a way he’d be missing out, because I’m beginning to think that some of this noise is worth making—and some of it is worth hearing too. Like the sound of my son’s voice from the backseat of the car, singing, “Doo-doo-doo. Doo-doo Dooda!”