As part of my mission to promote new or lesser-known authors and work published by indie presses, I agreed to participate in the “Blog Tour” for Heather Fowler’s upcoming novel, Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, which begins here and runs all week long.
I’ve been asked to write about the path to publication of my novel, Beautiful Ape Girl Baby. The novel form was something that came late to me, and its path to publication has been a long but ultimately fulfilling road. Having written more than 300 short stories first, I can say that earlier efforts toward creating the long form were not my favorite thing. Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, which will be published by Pink Narcissus Press in June 2016, was and is, for this reason, a sort of gift to my writing trajectory.
As it’s a story about a seventeen-year-old rich girl who resembles an ape and goes on the road to find sex and visit her mentor (a radio host for a segment called the “Strong as Animal Woman Show”), I don’t know if I’ll ever write another book like it. I am no wunderkind. I’m an artist with a writing addiction complicated by an obdurate need to keep expressing. I’m also a genre-hopping maverick. For those who have a long process or may also fear the novel as I did before I wrote Beautiful, take heart. I did not spin out Beautiful with great ease over the period of a year or two, or even five. From the concept inception to publication, fifteen years passed.
Beautiful Ape Girl Baby the novel began as a short story with the same title, written in 2001. It sat amidst a pile of other work until 2008, when I found it a home at A Capella Zoo. I discuss how this particular story was selected for expansion to a novel in a recent fiction feature at Connotations Press, but here I’ll tell you how I tricked myself into writing the longer manuscript and placed it with a publisher.
Two years after the “Beautiful Ape Girl Baby” story was published, circa 2010, I finally made a push to turn it into a book. I knew staying interested in a single story beyond the fifty-page mark was my dilemma, but as a busy woman with a full-time job and kids, I kept myself going by making the writing of the novel a game of whimsy. First, I’d create a wild chapter header that made each segment interesting enough for me to want to write. I’d scribble a few plot details to fill in the blanks for the narrative arc, making writing chapters like writing interconnected short stories. In fact, the first version of the book’s Word file was simply the short story that would serve, after modification, as Chapter One (“ape girl punches out a few jerks, goes to a dive bar, meets a greaser, seeks a junkyard in which to make love, and kills a man”), and an outline of the chapter titles, which I’d type the growing narrative between. This table of contents no longer exists in the published book, but this was the map for how it got written.
Having finally discovered this strategy that worked for me, I wrote like a fiend. What followed was sending initial Beautiful Ape Girl Baby chapters to a few writing colleagues and holding my breath while I waited for their response. It was through seeking this support from a small audience for my book in progress that I found my first agent, someone who’d read the original short story and loved it, someone who began as a friend, encouraged the work from start to finish, and later said she’d represent the book if it didn’t have an unsettlingly happy ending.
Our goals were a match. The agent’s deadlines and desire to see the book complete were my push. At around that time, my first book, the short story collection Suspended Heart, came out. I had contracts for two more story collections soon thereafter. These facts should show you that I frequently leapt back and forth between projects, but I nonetheless finished the first full edit of Beautiful Ape Girl Baby in 2011. After a first read, the agent accepted it—but the effort of securing publication for Beautiful Ape Girl Baby was a long, bumpy road.
After all, this is a book in which people say wild things and see the world through a fractured lens. It’s a book that’s many things at once, hard to pigeonhole—part satire, part magical realism, part feminist commentary on gender power dynamics, and part simple story about a girl trying like hell to be less estranged from love and others. Did I mention this book also pokes fun at self-help, insincere friendships, and motivational speaking?
It’s a nice thing in May 2016 to have reviews beginning to come in, but during the years Beautiful first sought a home, my agent had multiple life struggles that forbade many submissions or queries. I think she sent it to three publishers altogether in three years. In 2012, an absurdist press read it and declined, saying the writing was good—however, it was “just not our thing at the moment.” Not much happened between 2012 and 2014. Busy promoting my short story collections and individual stories that continued to be published in magazines, I wasn’t too worried… but I continued to ask my agent sporadically about the status of Beautiful Ape Girl Baby.
Finally in 2014, while still thinking the novel was special, I almost gave up. I couldn’t seem to get much information from my agent, discovered Beautiful hadn’t been on frequent rotation, and worried that this time in her life wasn’t ideal for book representation. Concurrently, I remained in frequent contact with Michael Takeda of Pink Narcissus Press because in 2012 he’d published my second collection, People with Holes. I’d met Michael after Pink Narc published an original fairy tale I wrote called “Come, Come Blackbird” in an anthology, and after he bought and read my debut collection Suspended Heart, he solicited the second, and we worked together to contribute all People with Holes author proceeds to Planned Parenthood, which he matched as publisher. As the years went by, he kept tabs on what happened with my work. Sadly, we sometimes spoke of what was not happening with my novel. The manuscript had begun to resemble, for me, a once favorite child I’d shipped off to boarding school in Nova Scotia.
Michael said he wanted to read it. I thought it might be a Pink Narcissus jam, but also held out in case the agent could work miracles. Nonetheless, in February of 2014, I sent the book to Michael and Pink Narcissus editor Josie Brown, letting them know I hadn’t yet broken ties with my agent but was checking to see if they’d be interested if nothing panned out.
My book has a kick ass female protagonist and a literary flair, I thought. Plus, it’s funny. And unusual. In ten seconds, how many current literary women authors who write funny fiction can you name? I kept drawing blanks. I couldn’t think of anything like my book, and after a faster read than I anticipated, Michael replied, “First two words that came to mind: ‘weird’ and ‘beautiful.’ Not sure if it’s more ‘weirdly beautiful’ or ‘beautifully weird.’ Either way, I thought it was lovely. We would happily publish it.”
I felt flattered and heartened, but torn. Who doesn’t want a huge advance and big press for a debut novel? This is why I went with an agent from the beginning—desiring more notice and sales for my story collections if I could just grab that brass ring, I hoped to better promote my work. Don’t get me wrong. I’d been delighted to have a short story collection published with Pink Narcissus before, especially one with charitable goals like People with Holes, but as many writers know, the debut novel can be a gateway. I felt certain I needed to wait longer despite where my heart wanted me to go.
Still, in September of 2014, I asked Michael, “What would be the approx publication date you’d have open for Beautiful? The problem is that the agent has the book under second review at another press—yet the agent is under water with her own personal stuff, and I have no idea when I’ll get a firm answer…It’s really frustrating and hard.” By this time, my third collection, This Time, While We’re Awake (Aqueous Books, 2013), had been published. Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2014), my fourth collection, soon followed. Though busy promoting two books, in the back of my mind I wanted Beautiful Ape Girl Baby out soon. It belonged in this part of my trajectory.
Michael said Pink Narcissus might be able to publish it during the summer of 2015. My head jumped in twelve directions. I had a book of collaborative poems called Bare Bulbs Swinging, written with Meg Tuite and Michelle Reale, which had just won a contest with Artistically Declined Press.
Then, in October 2014, the second review press whose answer we’d been waiting on declined Beautiful, saying they didn’t think the book had “the kind of emotional sophistication we’d be looking for in a text this bold and edgy.” This stung, but what did I expect? That press wanted less stylized, more conservative work. Now, I can write a clean literary sentence as well as the next author. I can approach replicating the minimal expression and repressed emotion of a society in denial with almost no effort. But Beautiful Ape Girl Baby was never a text built with those aims. While writing it, I’d been unapologetically lucid dreaming, maximalist, hyper-real, and over the top, on purpose.
Michael liked that. “Weirdly beautiful,” I thought. I was almost ready to go with Pink Narcissus Press because they understood my book. They published LGBT and speculative fiction. They censored nothing. They submitted their titles for awards. From experience, I knew they wouldn’t bastardize or dumb down my book. They stood for good things. I prepared to contact Michael once more…just as another friend from out of town came to visit who said she knew a major agent who represented a big speculative fiction writer.
Wanting to give me a good opportunity, she told me to wait.
“Try this other agent first,” she said. “I’ll get you an intro. Break your contract with the current agent, don’t go small press. All these years and that few submissions? You need a different agent. That’s what you need.”
I held off from emailing Michael as my friend from out of town made the introduction to the well-established agent, and I sent a query. To even be considered for new representation, I went ahead and broke the arrangement with my previous agent, who remains, to this day, a dear friend.
The big fish agent took an excerpt, and I can’t remember whether or not she requested a full manuscript, but what I can remember is that she didn’t read the full book. She said she didn’t think “the concept and characters [were] rich enough sustain a novel-length work.” Sadly, our aesthetics weren’t a match. Here’s where things really started happening.
My mother said, “Go with the press that cares about your work.” I wrote Michael at Pink Narcissus Press within a week and never looked back. We then projected a summer 2016 release for Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, and particularly now, on the eve of its publication, I am grateful to Pink Narcissus Press for all the things I love most about how my novel will be published.
Talented fine artist Siolo Thompson made the popping red cover. The final version of the book will have chapter-divider pages with humorous summaries of what happens in each chapter. Scattered through the text, Michael will insert small drawings I created with Kurt Vonnegut and Laurence Sterne in mind. It was a pleasure getting to work with editor Josie Brown again. Already, advance review copies have gone out and inspired a short film adaptation filmed and in development for film festivals.
It’s funny how the path I took to publication for this novel was there for me all along and began with a relationship built on an original fairy tale.
Now, with Beautiful Ape Girl Baby on the verge of publication, I am depending on the goodwill and interest of readers to help it get seen and talked about. So far, early readers seem to be enjoying it. Maybe, like Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, it will find its way in the world to the readers who need a book like this.
The future is a strange, word-shaped ship on the horizon. I keep writing. I keep thinking. I keep moving forward.
Heather Fowler is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and librettist. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans. Fowler’s stories and poems have been published online and in print in the U.S., England, Australia, and India, and have appeared in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, and Feminist Studies. She is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine. For updates on Beautiful Ape Girl Baby, drop in at my website, Facebook, or Twitter.