My cousin, folks: W. Kamau Bell, a kickass comedian. If any of you live in the San Francisco area, he’s got some events coming up; go check him out!
Why am I promoting my cousin here, for something that has nothing whatsoever to do with fantasy? Because he’s family, and that’s what we do.
I’m also mentioning him because he’s done me a great favor, though he doesn’t know it. (Well, he will as soon as Google Alerts him, but anyway.) See, he pulled this trick first — telling his folks he didn’t want to do the traditional career thing, or the traditional go to college/get a 9 to 5/immediately get married/have kids/get old and die thing. In fact it was quite the (minor) family scandal when he quit school — Ivy League, no less — and ran off to start studying comedy instead. But I think because he broke so many paradigms, my mother didn’t freak out when I called her to say I was quitting my job to write books about gods and magic and stuff. I think Kamau’s existence may have saved me a few worried phone calls, and perhaps an involuntary commitment.
(And if you’re reading this, Cous? I owe you dinner.)
See, although my extended family has known for years that I was a writer, they mostly assumed it was a hobby, not that I was serious about making a career of it. I can’t blame them for thinking that; I didn’t make much money from this “career” of mine until lately. But part of the problem is also that my family has pretty standard working-class values; most of them believe pretty firmly in jobs, not careers. A job is something to pay for the things you needed in life, and maybe get rich if you were lucky. A “career” — i.e., doing something you enjoy, regardless of whether the money is good — just wasn’t possible before my parents’ generation, and even that was pushing it. So now that my generation is coming of age (all 4 of us, within this particular family nexus), and two of us have run off to
join the circus play starving artists, I imagine there are some folks in my family who are skritching their heads a bit.
So I find myself having to answer all sorts of puzzled, sometimes uneasy, questions. No, I won’t be going on Oprah. No, they’re not going to make a movie out of my book, or at least not until it makes a crapload of money. And speaking of money, no, I’m not rich; I’m actually struggling to afford health insurance, thanks. Also, maybe you shouldn’t tell the matron’s group at church to buy my book, Mom, given the alternative religious cosmology and kinky sex scenes in it. I dunno. Up to you. (While we’re at it, Mom, please don’t read my book, ever. –Haven’t worked up the courage to say that one yet. Not sure it would work if I did.)
That said, though, the most surprising and significant expectation I’ve had to manage is the fear on some of my family members’ parts that I will write about them, in some creepy tell-all way. This too is understandable; the literary headlines seem to be full of mainstream authors thinly (sometimes very thinly) veiling real-life interactions and experiences in fictional form. Which is the thing I’ve had to realize: most people’s perceptions of writers are shaped by exceptions and extremes. Stephen King and J. K. Rowling get written about a lot, so everybody thinks all writers are like them. (Yeah, I f#$@ing wish.) The media hypes writers who excoriate their families for a buck, so everybody thinks all writers are like that. The fact that 95% of what I write is fantasy/sci-fi and takes place in a secondary world notwithstanding.
So I’ve had to do a lot of reassuring and trust-building. I explain, to anyone who asks, what the book is about — and I’ve had to steel myself and mention the content, so that no one will be surprised when they hit page 205 and their hair catches fire. I tell them what my life is like, day to day, and I’m careful to note the mundanities: the struggle to meet my word-quotas, taxes, and what a freaking nightmare my apartment search was. (Ever try to convince a landlord that you’re a safe bet when you don’t have regular income? Not fun.) I gripe about my work day, and let them hear how much I worry about sales and distribution and marketing materials.
But in the end, is my family less perplexed by what I’ve chosen to do? I don’t know yet; all this stuff is too new. I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.
(I’m calling this “Family 101,” note, because I don’t currently have a partner or children, which to my mind is kind of “Family 601” or “Grad-level Family” or something. When I acquire the aforementioned, I’ll be sure to update you on the next stage. Or perhaps one of my upperclassmen/women among the Magic Districtees will share.)