Second time's the charm: Talking with Laurie Frankel about the pleasures and pains of paperbacks

Seattle author Laurie Frankel's novel This Is How It Always Is was one of my very favorite novels of last year. It's the gentle and big-hearted story of a mother who slowly realizes that her child is transgender, and the publisher made no secret of the fact that the story features at least some roots in reality: Frankel is the mother of a girl who was labeled a boy at birth. On Tuesday, January 23rd, Frankel is celebrating the paperback launch of This Is How It Always Is at the Seattle Public Library downtown. She was kind enough to talk to us about what an author experiences when her hardcover book becomes a paperback. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our phone conversation.

So, I just wanted to say first that I really love the book. And I especially love the way that it grew on me — the way that it just sort of stuck with me, and the experience of reading it grew in my mind long after I put the book down. And that doesn't always happen. I was wondering, for you as a writer, did the experience of writing this book feel different than other things you may have written in the past?

First of all, thank you so much — I appreciate it. And you know, I think they all feel different from one another. The primary emotion whilse writing a novel is dread. It is for me, in any case. And then this miracle happens in between the second and third revisions, where you realize this is going to come together.

It wasn't clear to me where this book was going when I started it. So that was a surprise. The way in which this story was going to overlap with my family's story was not clear to me going in. And, so, as that became clear as time went on, all of these other senses of dread came along with that first sense of dread.

Was this the most that you had used your own life in your writing?

In an obvious way, yes, for sure. I think that it's probably always true that novels have a good bit of their author's lives in them.

And I also think that these characters are not people I know — except for having spent a lot of time with them because I made them up. There are so many kids in this book, and I have only the one. That's such an enormous difference that I'm not wrong in feeling very removed from it — feeling that it was very made up.

And now it’s coming out in paperback. What is that experience like for an author? Does it feel like you're going through the publication process all over again?

Yes, that is exactly what it is like. The hardcover release is such a whirlwind. And I was on book tour on and off for nearly a year, so I was traveling a lot. I wasn't thinking about a paperback release at all.

But paperbacks are so different in the way they release it, and what your publisher does for it, and what they want you to do for it. Because this is likely to go out to a whole new audience, you have to prepare for all of that too.

Can you talk a little bit more about the differences between paperback and hardcover releases? I know you said there are different audiences, but I wonder if there are other differences. I think our readers might be interested in hearing about those.

Sure, totally. As you know, with hardcover releases, the focus is on getting reviews and placing articles in various publications to go along with the launch — to try to get the word out. Also, any kind of a tour is going to happen with the hardcover. And so, I've been doing all of that. And all of that is and has been really wonderful.

However, book clubs — almost across the board — have a rule that they only choose books that are in paperback. And I totally get that, because hardcover books are twice as much money as paperbacks if you're buying them from your local independent bookstore — God love you. This is a huge difference.

It’s a big difference in readership, because people who come to the hardcover events usually know something about [the book] and they sought it out. And people who come for the paperback are much more likely to have, say, seen it on a table in the bookstore and picked it up. Because doing that when the book is $30 is totally different than when the book is $14.

Or, they're in a book club and the book club picked the book. Or, they remember having seen it a year ago when it came out in the first place, and so, now here it is in front of them and they’re like, “oh yeah, sure, maybe I'll give that a shot.” So, it's much more likely that readers are coming to it without necessarily knowing what it's about, or having chosen to engage with that topic. And that's a whole different ball game.

I understand that not everything is drawn from your life, but the novel is in part uniquely based on your experience, and that was a part of the public discussion around the novel. I was wondering if you got a particularly personal response from readers — if readers responded in a different way?

Yes. I have gotten a lot — a lot, a lot — of email from parents who said, “wow, me too.” Lots of people who said, “thanks for writing about this, I thought I was the only one.” Lots of adults who said “wow, my experience was really different than this, and I'm really glad to hear that it's changing.” So that was all really great.

I also got a not insignificant amount of hate mail and death threats and that sort of thing. I suppose to speak to your last question, that’s part of my concern about what's upcoming. The hardcover was unlikely to fall into your hands if you weren't ready and eager to hear about what it was about.

And with the paperback, there’s that anxiety: okay, here we go again. And the paperback is opening up to a new audience, and that's so wonderful in so many ways. But there’s also this kernel of okay, who's going to write and yell at me now, and knowing what it feels like to get those emails in your inbox in the morning.

So are you working on something new now? Or are you still coasting on the high of publication?

Oh, Lord, no.

I didn't think so. But I always expect somebody to say "yes, I've just been relaxing nonstop" at some point, when I ask that question.

That's so funny. No, no. That high is such a complicated thing. No, I'm writing the next novel. I think I couldn't not be writing the next novel, at this point. I would be losing my mind if I were still thinking about a novel that is already in the can, and that I can't do anything about. So instead, I'm staying sane by quickly drafting the next one.