"Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it." -- Julia Child
William Doonan’s American Caliphate
Years ago, I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in literature at UCR for a number of reasons. I was working towards a dissertation on Rex Stout, but I realized that this wasn’t the world for me. I can’t remember why I thought I should get a Ph.D. in the first place. I already had an MFA in fiction. Maybe it had something to do with wanting to get a job.
Anyway, I do remember why I dropped out. There were about ten reasons, but one of them was that I love literature. But as much as I love it, I wasn’t interested in researching the minutia of Rex Stout’s life. It takes a special kind of person to be able to do that, and I was more interested in writing my own stories than figuring out whether what Archie Goodwin represented to a post-structuralist.
I’ve always admired people who can do that kind of research. The only time I’ve been able to focus like that is for my own writing.
To me, research equals love.
And if it does, William Doonan must love what he does and what he writes. Doonan is an archaeologist and anthropologist by training who spends much of his free time on digs – or "excavations" as the anthropologists in his book reminds us. That experience comes through clearly in this story about an excavation in Peru, which might or might not prove that there was an American Caliphate in 1500s.
Doonan’s research makes the work come to life. His flashbacks into Spanish history open up not only the political realities of the world but feel real as well. We get the texture of that world. I’ve never been to modern-day Peru, but I have a great sense of what it is like. The archaeology felt real, and I was there.
Doonan’s a great writer and his book is terrific. I lost count of how many major characters there were as I flashed back and forth between their perspective, but I was never lost or confused. I just wanted to see how my favorites were going to make it through their day.
Now, since this is a blog about promotion, I contacted Mr. Doonan and asked him about his promotion:
Me: When you first started to promote American Caliphate what surprised you the most?
Doonan: I guess what surprised me most is how hard it is. As a lifelong reader, I'm always in search of my next read, and I always have my ear to the ground listening for tips and suggestions. But it's quite another thing being the person giving out the tips and suggestions. Encouraging someone to read a book is more of an art than I had expected. More than anything, it's about making connections, even making friends. Books are sold one at a time, and I didn't see that coming.
Me: What do you find to be most effective for promoting it?
Doonan: I've done some readings, and some bookstore appearances, but I think when it comes to face-to-face engagements, I do better at book club meetings. More valuable still is the range and scope of an online platform. It's not an easy presence to manage, and it's not a magic bullet, but a solid suite of Facebook, Twitter, website, and blogging is absolutely essential. I'm still not moving a lot of books, but I get readers and comments and new friends from all over the world.
Me: What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened to you as an archaeologist?
Doonan: I was on survey down in southern Costa Rica some years back, down by the Panamanian border (possibly even across it) and we came across a clearing only to find a mean-looking battle helicopter guarded by six American soldiers wearing no insignia. They weren't very talkative. When we asked what they were doing there, and if we could get a ride in the helicopter, they asked us to leave.
Me: As a teacher?
Doonan: Too many things to count. Once on a primatology exam, I had a student write an essay about reprehensible thumbs. I commented that although primates might have opposable thumbs, most digits are not objectionable. Another time, a student left class and forgot his motorized wheelchair. I drove it around for nearly half an hour before I found him.
Me: As a Writer?
Doonan: I think the weirdest thing that's happened to me as a writer is the degree to which I've become efficient. Not to say that I'm particularly good at it, but I can get a few sentences in before breakfast, tweak the intro while changing a diaper, and nail the conclusion waiting for the toast to pop. I seldom get long blocks of free time, so I've learned to colonize the moments.