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Conn College professor gets philosophical about fiction

By Rick Koster

Publication: The Day

Published February 04. 2013 4:00AM
Tim Cook/The Day
Connecticut College Professor Andrew Pessin at his office in the Blaustein Humanities Center at Connecticut College in New London.
Conn professor gets philosophical about fiction

"If you're a writer, you're a writer. You write."

Andrew Pessin is talking not just about his new novel, "The Second Daughter," a multi-faceted, often hilarious but also heartbreaking story about the thorny disintegration of a family - complete with a mystery narrator and a pretzel-twist conclusion. He's also talking about the haunted house of frustrations and industry realities that authors encounter in the bizarre and rapidly changing world of modern publishing.

After all, Pessin, chairman of the department of philosophy at Connecticut College in New London, is the successful author of several nonfiction volumes of philosophy aimed at general audiences - all of which came out from actual and established publishing houses.

Why, then, did Pessin decide to enter the realm of fiction? Why is "The Second Daughter" attributed to the mysterious "J. Jeffrey"? And why did Pessin/Jeffrey choose the do-it-yourself route when he'd already earned a reputation with established presses?

In a presentation called "How to Pseudonymously Self-Publish an Award-Winning Novel and Make BIG BUCKS!" held Tuesday at Conn College's Charles E. Shain Library, Pessin will answer those questions - even as he cheerfully acknowledges the possibility that many more will surface.

"I've always wanted to write fiction," Pessin says by phone from his home office in Coventry, R.I. "In my case, it was a question of waiting for the right time and space. I had the story I wanted to tell; there were just a lot of issues to consider."

Pessin and his wife have three children and, for years, balancing his time between family, teaching and writing philosophy left little time to try to write a novel.

After several nonfiction books, though, and numerous articles for scholars, Pessin says, "I've addressed a lot of philosophical issues for people that normally wouldn't read about such things, and I've written a lot of academic stuff that no one but academics would read. I finally got comfortable with the idea that the world probably didn't need another article by me about Descartes."

Pessin's original plans for "The Second Daughter" were to go the traditional route through a New York publishing house, and he was able to secure an agent based on samples of the book and his nonfiction track record. The next step, as per suggestions by both the agent and early potential editors, was that Pessin substantially revise the novel to make it more conventionally structured.

The changes were recommended because, while "The Second Daughter" incorporates elements of literary, women's and even mystery fiction, the manuscript didn't easily fall into the sort of specific genre major houses prefer for marketing purposes.

"As I further explored the business of publishing novels," Pessin says, "I learned that 'genres' are weird, not-real things. Mystery, romance, science fiction, whatever. What if your book doesn't actually fit? That disappoints readers expecting something else. Plus, once you've put a manuscript in a category, you immediately eliminate a lot of other potential readers who say, 'Well, I don't like women's fiction.' So they never pick it up."

As his agent's efforts to procure a deal progressed at the industry's slow-as-molasses machinations, Pessin felt less and less comfortable about the process as well as the changes he'd made to his manuscript.

"The whole experience was leaving an unpleasant taste in my mouth," Pessin says. "Ultimately, while I felt there was and is a bit of a stigma to self-publishing, I decided to go try it, anyway."

(The self-publishing "stigma," it should be pointed out, has nothing to do with why Pessin chose to publish "The Second Daughter" under the pseudonym "J. Jeffrey." Oh, no. There's a significant plot element to the strategy.)

Pessin's research quickly revealed that it's extremely easy to self-publish a novel in both print and download formats - and he selected the methods that worked best for his situation. "The Second Daughter" came out last year, and the author's next chore was to figure out how to competitively market the work against the thousands of other self-published books that come out every year.

If the goal is to get rich and hit the big home run, Pessin suggests that might not be the best or most realistic reason to write a book.

"There are a lot of ways to look at the situation," Pessin says. "Most importantly, 90 percent of my motivation is simply the act of writing. I like it. The chance of making the big bucks is small and I know it and everyone knows it. Everyone also realizes that the overwhelming percentage of self-published books probably aren't that good. At the same time, if people are disciplined enough to finish a book, and they have something to say, why not?"

As for the big question of how to market "The Second Daughter," Pessin is, as with thousands of other writers, trying to come up with a strategy that actually works. Pessin is working social media, has official web pages and, as per Tuesday's appearance, appears at libraries, schools and reading groups. He participates in online events such as blog tours and trolls such book-happy sites as goodreads.com.

He entered "The Second Daughter" in the 2012 New England Book Fair and came away with an Honorable Mention award in the General Fiction category.

Other than paying a professional book publicist - not part of Pessin's budget - it's a murky world out there and Pessin, at this stage, isn't sure how effective his efforts have been.

"I'm not sure I'm doing anything 'innovative,'" he says. "There are an infinite number of websites out there with people telling you how to market your book, so with a little research you get all the tips."

Maybe the best strategy, Pessin thinks, is simply to write the best book you can.

Who: Andrew Pessin, author of several nonfiction books and the new novel "The Second Daughter," and chair of the philosophy department at Connecticut College

What: "How to Pseudonymously Self-Publish at Award-Winning Novel and Make BIG BUCKS!"

When: 4:15 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Charles Chu Asian Art Reading Room, Charles E. Shain Library, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London

How much: Free and open to the public

For more information: (860) 447-1911, theseconddaughter.com, andrewpessin.com

SIDEBAR

WHO IS J. JEFFREY AND WHAT DOES HE HAVE TO DO WITH ANDREW PESSIN'S "THE SECOND DAUGHTER"?

Andrew Pessin's first novel, published under the pseudonym J. Jeffrey, is called "The Second Daughter" (available in paperback and download editions). It's an exhilarating Twister game between various literary genres - seamlessly rendered with a sculptor's touch.

The story of the incredibly dysfunctional Gale family - father Theodore, mother Helen, older daugther Regina and the titular Deborah - "The Second Daughter" details a slow-crumbling disintegration against surprising development and, finally, painful attempts at redemption.

It's a heartbreaking book; at the same time, there's darkly and often hysterically humorous social commentary from a mysteriously omniscient narrator. The whole construct is a tightrope promenade - only, instead of Wallendas tiptoeing across, imagine Luanne Rice and Jodi Picoult starting toward the center on one side and Jonathan Franzen and the Royal Tenenbaums coming toward them from the other. Rather than crash, they perform a sophisticated ballet 100 feet above the ground - with no net.

Two delicious bits of minutiae (and don't peek): J. Jeffrey is more than a pseudonym, and the very last sentence of the novel was the original premise for the entire plot when it innocently popped into Pessin's brain. All Pessin had to do was work completely backwards until he himself learned what the whole story was.

 

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