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Burying Your Dream | A rejected Oakland author on writing, publishing and funerals.
Putting everything on the line to achieve a life-long dream is a big risk. You know the drill—Coldplay’s at Shoreline tonight—are you all about that? Sorry man, I’ve got to work on my screenplay. But if it becomes painfully obvious that the brick wall of rejection ain’t crumbling no matter how many times your head crashes into it, other strategies for eternal fulfillment just may be in order. That’s where almost-failed first-time novelist Mary Patrick Kavanaugh comes in. For some six years she poured her heart and soul into writing a semi-autobiographical first novel—aren’t they all?—about her life with her late husband, an attorney on the wrong side of the law. And while many editors gave Family Plots: Love, Death and Tax Evasion a thumbs-up, none were willing to take a chance on an unknown. In an effort to move on from the experience, Kavanaugh decided to bury any thoughts of getting published—literally. Late last year she held a funeral for her “dream” and invited others to deep-six their unrealistic goals into a coffin at her real-life church, Oakland’s Lifemark Chapel of the Chimes. I tracked down Kavanaugh to see what else she’s buried or resurrected.
Paul Kilduff: Would we all just be a lot happier if we just flat gave up on our hopes and dreams?
Mary Patrick Kavanaugh: I actually wrote something about the freedom of goal-free living. It’s just like, “Yeah, I don’t have to succeed. That’s great.”
PK: What about people in third world countries who lead simpler lives? They’re not worried about—
MPK: Publishing. Having a CD come out. No, I don’t have to go to a third world country. I live in Oakland so my friends are from all sorts of social and economic strata and I think, “God, it’s just ridiculous what we get all worked up about.”
PK: I’ve always had this theory that the real strivers in the world aren’t actually happy. They don’t have personal lives.
MPK: My daughter has decided to be a teacher because she really wants the life balance. Some of the people I work with, who work around the clock, are putting on a lot of weight, and you see Oprah coming out with the big “Oh, my God, I’m not practicing anything that I’m preaching on my show. My life’s just all about striving and doing . . .”
PK: And eating mac ’n’ cheese, apparently.
MPK: Because there’s really no time to nurture yourself. I go to a really great church in Oakland that really promotes working on the inside rather than looking for happiness on the outside so I know it all and I study it all, but there still is that hope that somehow someone on the outside would validate me and say, “Yes, you are a writer.” And when I chucked the whole thing after the last rejection and decided to do the funeral, I started having so much fun. I know it’s odd for some people because why would having a funeral be fun? I’ve had to have so many in my life that were really sad but I always focused on celebrating the lives with the people I had lost. But this funeral thing, and writing the copy for the website, It cracked me up—making fun of myself. Making fun of the striving for the bestselling work was funny for me. It’s just been really interesting to watch it play out in blogs and to hear some of the comments people have said about what I’ve done. Some are really interesting and nice and supportive, but others are like, “What a wimp, giving up after 16 rejections.” And then they go on this whole thread of trashing this idea. Just letting go of the goal and enjoying what you do everyday—that is the great spiritual path.
PK: But, the fact is, you did self-publish the book. So aren’t you really redefining your dream? In other words, your dream started off as, “Let me find a big-time New York publisher.” That didn’t work out so you took the bull by the horns and published it yourself. Are you telling people to redefine their dreams?
MPK: Oh absolutely. As sappy as it sounds, I’m a big Sound of Music fan and “Climb Every Mountain” was in my funeral. This is the sappy line from Sound of Music, “When the Lord closes a door he always opens a window.” It sure is my lesson that nobody’s going to do it for me. It’s gotta come from within. If I think the book should be published, publish it. It’s no big deal in today’s society to publish it.
PK: What you did got me to thinking about the negative image of self-publishing as opposed to blogging, where the bloggers are doing their best to take all the money out of professional writing (Thank you, bloggers), and podcasters doing the same thing with broadcasting. And yet nobody puts down anyone who’s a blogger or a podcaster—they’re celebrated as independent citizen journalists/pundits. But if you publish your own book you’re just hopelessly vain.
MPK: I stupidly hopped on and said something on one or two of the blogs that were writing about me in a negative way. One woman was saying after 16 rejections what a sense of entitlement I had that I think I should be on “Oprah.” I wouldn’t have sat on my ass for six years writing this book that took forever and rewriting it and crafting it and having it evaluated and critiqued if I didn’t think there was some brass ring. So it’s kind of the cosmic joke to me that I got to the end and went, “Okay, now you really need to decide, should you publish it?” And I thought of what some of these writers were saying in the blogs: “We all have a book in our drawer.” And I’m thinking, why would I leave it in my drawer? I mean a lot of people may not like it, but why would I leave it in a drawer when you can go on iUniverse for 1,200 bucks and publish it on demand?
PK: Do you think the book publishing world is waking up to the “on demand” idea?
MPK: I’ve had a couple of agents contact me since I’ve launched this whole thing and one of them, the agent for a bunch of high-powered writers in New York who is very down-to-earth said of the publishing world: it’s gone to shit. You see what’s going on in the financial world and real estate and it seems like all the major institutions are crumbling in on themselves because technology is changing everything. I have so many writer friends who’ve been rejected and have wonderful books. Literary books. I don’t kid myself. I always think, “Yeah, my book’s good. Some people love it. Some people like it. Some people think it’s terrible and some people wouldn’t bother.” It’s all subjective. It’s a polished, edited, crafted book whether you like it or not but you can’t get in as a first-time author. People saw this coming because not only are there so many books out there that can be published and self-published, there used to be so many more publishers and they’ve all bought each other. My agent really targeted the top editors that she thought would be interested in this and we didn’t leave on bad terms. We just left as, “Wow, maybe you should self-publish and really come up with a clever marketing plan.” She did not like my funeral idea. I don’t know that we share the same sense of humor. I don’t know what the world’s going to look like, but I do think in terms of artists bringing their work forth, I don’t think we can rely on the same systems anymore and I think agents are really nervous.
PK: I know you love Oprah, but I’m always a little leery of anyone who seems to have become the arbiter of taste. I can think for myself.
MPK: I’m a diehard fan. I certainly don’t think she’s a perfect person, but in terms of the quality of programming and the stuff that gets out there, [I am a fan]. People tend to focus on some of the cheesier things she does, like giving away cars and all that, but in terms of what she’s put out in the world—like she’s the one who promoted the secret. Are you aware of the secret?
PK: Apparently not, since I don’t watch “Oprah.”
MPK: It’s one of those make-a-vision boards and you can manifest whatever you want. I did a whole spoof on it at the funeral and threw all that stuff into the coffin. It’s so easy to make fun of. She brings these things out, people talk about ’em, they get very controversial. But I was very pleased when she brought up Eckhart Tolle’s book that essentially talks about what you were just saying—how it’s such a happier life to not be striving and just wherever you are let that be where you are. If I’m attached to getting my book published, if you’re attached to having your own interview show, whatever that is, giving that up can be one of the most liberating things you’ll ever do.
PK: I feel so relaxed now. I read a Steve Martin quote where he said something about how now that he doesn’t want anything career-wise, all these great things are happening for him.
MPK: There you go. It doesn’t matter to him anymore.
PK: There must be some truth to that. I guess we’d all be a lot happier if we sat around and ate Cheetos and watched “Oprah.”
MPK: If you eat enough Cheetos you could look like “Oprah”.
PK: One of the reasons you were rejected by all these publishers is that you’re not a marketable name. Are publishers only interested in established authors who are celebrities in their own right or just garden-variety celebrities who write kid books or cookbooks who can get on “Oprah”?
MPK: I know the publishing industry’s afraid to take chances, but hearing from some of the agents and what they think happened, it’s just everyone is afraid of losing their jobs. Everyone is afraid of making the wrong choice.
PK: In retrospect was it a mistake to be so up front about the autobiographical nature of your book? Shouldn’t you have just sent it out as pure fiction and let it go at that?
MPK: I would have sent it out as fiction but no, I don’t really care. It bugs me that people hide the fact that so many first novels are [autobiographical].
PK: But, don’t you just take it for granted that a first novel is autobiographical?
MPK: Well, everyone assumes that and I just decided to be out there with it but I have other novelist friends who if you say, “Did that happen?” [they say,] “No, it’s fiction!” Fine, I think thou protest it too much.
PK: If you’ve been sitting around watching “Oprah” and doing the laundry, your first novel might not be that compelling. In other words, in order to write a novel, you have to have gone through some stuff, don’t you think? I mean, you certainly have.
MPK: Or make up some really good stuff. You’ve got to be able to imagine it and you’ve got to be a good writer. And also, my voice doesn’t grab everybody and so these agents . . . I think there are some first-time writers who are getting grabbed but somebody’s just got to be willing to go to the mat. I got enough positive feedback from these editors that I quoted them on the back of my book, but are they ready to go to the mat for you?
PK: You’re taking that first step and becoming a little more well-known through all these shenanigans, but are you in danger of completely turning off all the big publishers with your antics?
MPK: One of the rejecters wrote a whole blog about me because she was so offended that I sent the invitation to her to be a pallbearer. She received it with no sense of humor, called my agent; my agent called me and said, “Did you in fact send an invitation to her to be a pallbearer?” I could see how that could be kind of creepy, but my reply card I thought lightened it. It said you could check three boxes. One was, “Unfortunately I have to reject you again.” The second was, “I’d be happy to help kill this project.” And the third was, “For the love of God would you leave me alone?”
PK: You’re certainly getting a lot of mileage out of your stunt, far more than most first-timer authors. And I should know. I get pitched all the time to do interviews with authors I’ve never heard of. I get plenty of free books, and they make great gifts.
MPK: I’m glad I didn’t send you one. Although who the hell cares? If you gave it to somebody and somebody’s reading my book I’d be thrilled.
PK: It really points out the desperate state a lot of publishers are in and it makes me wonder in our fast-paced point-and-click society who has got time to read novels, let alone publish them?
MPK: I agree with you. When I’m thinking about my next work I’m really thinking of having it be a multimedia piece because I notice I don’t read novels at the same pace. And I never was one of those voracious readers. I’ve been hanging around a lot of intellectual, learned, literary people for my MFA program and the professors sit around and talk about every book in the world and I’ve always been a very slow reader. You hear [writers say,] “I always had my nose in a book growing up and I knew I’d be a writer,” and all that and that’s just not it for me. But I’m not even reading as much because my attention span has been shortened because of the way our society is.
PK: That’s very revealing of you to admit that. I have a friend who says you see a lot of people at Borders buying books, but you wonder if they’re just carrying them around as accessories, like a handbag.
MPK: My aunt—she’s actually a reader because she’s a traveler and I think the downtime in traveling does allow for it—she pointed to her to-read book pile and there had to be 30 books in there. It’s just crazy.
PK: People with all kinds of impressive books lying around—in many cases they should be glued down for all the reading they experience.
MPK: I’ve learned to just come clean on that. In my writer’s group they’re all talking about everything and I’m like, “Remember me? I mouth out each word when I read.” And I come from a reading family.
PK: So, who does read novels? Middle-aged, mid-Western housewives and commuters?
PK: Homeless people?
MPK: It depends. There was a professor of mine at USF and she was telling me one day, “Oh, I could eat Faulkner for breakfast. And I thought, “You freak.” I would have to take a week off to read As I Lay Dying.
PK: What’s for breakfast? Faulkner. A little Cream of Wheat on the side. It stays with you all day. Holding onto unfilled dreams—does it prevent you from ever being truly happy?
MPK: I think it blocks our view. I think it becomes an obstacle. If you think this is the thing I need to be happy, yeah. How the hell are you going to be happy? Why not just be happy? I was deeply, powerfully in love with my husband, even though we drove each other crazy. I had this idea of a perfect family and had to let that go. When you lose the thing you think you have to have to make you happy and you decide to be happy anyway, it is very liberating.
Age: Almost 47
Favorite extinct species: The milkman