After reading the recent Publisher’s Weekly article about Algonquin’s potentially-hazardous marketing campaign, I decided to see if I could locate the man in the midst of the action, One Story author Brock Clarke.
He was kind enough to answer a few questions questions about the marketing of his new novel, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.
KS: Whose idea was it to promote the book in such a unique way?
BC: Well, some of the good, talented people at Algonquin thought it up. This should be obvious, but only because I’m not creative enough to think if it myself. If publicity were left to me, I’d probably do something ingenious like make sure my mother told her cousins about the novel, and let word of mouth take over from there, which it surely would not have.
KS: Were you anticipating anyone to find the letters threatening in any way?
BC: I didn’t really anticipate anything–once I learned of the promotion, I didn’t think, “What if this happens?” Or, “I hope this happens,” or “I hope this doesn’t happen.” I just said, “Sounds good,” which is what I tend to do when someone so clearly knows more about something than I do. This happens all the time, and so I’m somewhat expert at it by now.
As for naming fake historical homes: this seems to me the clearest evidence of the letters’ fictiveness. Each of the letters mentions the guy–my narrator, Sam Pulsifer–as the guy who already has burned down the Emily Dickinson House. And as anyone who cares–or who cares enough to get on the Web for five seconds–knows, the Emily Dickinson House is still very much intact and accepting paying customers in lovely Amherst, Masschusetts. Besides, the houses that are torched in my novel are all real writers’ houses, and despite them being torched in fiction, they all still exist in reality. That which happens in fiction doesn’t necessarily happen in real life. This is as good a definition of fiction as I know. And for that matter, a pretty fair definition of memoir, too.
KS: Were you aware of the recent Cartoon Network “scandal” (in which Lite-Brite esque signs were confused for bombs)? Any thoughts on the concurrence of Boston-area police getting tipped off about marketing campaigns?
BC: I was aware of the Adult Swim scare, sure. But the two don’t seem to have a lot to do with each other: one, as I understand it, could have been mistaken for a bomb, maybe. The other–the letter–was clearly a fictive letter. I mean, the letter was real–it existed–but it clearly was about something that hadn’t already happened (again, the Emily Dickinson House still stands) as though it had actually already happened. The head of the Edith Wharton House seemed to recognize this, and to take it with good humor, and a sense of fun, for which I’m grateful.
KS: Do you think “viral marketing” and other creative techniques work for selling books?
BC: Again, I have no idea what works, or not. All I’m really concerned with–and pretend to have some expertise about–is writing fiction, and even then I’m not always totally sure what works or what doesn’t. I trust the folks Algonquin know what they’re doing, and nothing that they’re done thus far as suggested they don’t. I just say, “Sounds good” and get out of their way, and get back to writing.
If this has left you hungry for some short stories you can check out The Georgia Review (.pdf) or the virgina Quarterly Review. You can also pick up Carrying the Torch, or What We Won’t Do from Powells.com.