Booksellers often fall in love with a terrific new book, only to find that the hardcover version is a tough sell. We console ourselves by saying that the book will really “take off” in paperback, and very often that’s true. Certain books, through a combination of serendipity and quality, sell enormously well in hardcover for years without being released in paperback. (Think of Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Unbroken . . .) But most paperback releases are scheduled for 9 to 12 months after hardcover publication, depending on sales. Some of those paperbacks do sell much, much better than their hardcover versions, especially those that appeal to book clubs.
Author Nichole Bernier interviewed publishers, editors, authors, and literary agents for an article in The Millions about relaunching books in paperback, learning that “A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.” Melanie Benjamin, whose paperbacks have been very popular with book club audiences, observed that “‘ . . . almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book.'” M.J. Rose, of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, said, “‘I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got.'”
The Headmaster’s Wife, by Thomas Christopher Greene — one of my 10 Favorite Books of 2014 — was just released in paperback. The publisher must think that ivy-covered brick buildings appeal to book clubs, because only one minor change appears on the cover: Richard Russo’s blurb has been replaced with a quote from a People magazine review. Too bad, because what Russo says is spot-on: “I read the second half of The Headmaster’s Wife with my mouth open, my jaw having dropped at the end of the first half. Thomas Christopher Greene knows how to hook a reader and land him.”
The Headmaster’s Wife opens when Arthur Winthrop, headmaster of a New England boarding school, is found wandering naked in Central Park. As he begins to tell his story to the police, it becomes clear to the reader that Arthur is an unreliable narrator. Just how unreliable he is only becomes obvious about halfway through the book. At this point Arthur’s wife lends her perspective to the story, and the reader must determine whose version of the truth to believe.
The novel is a page-turner, with very surprising plot twists, but it’s much more than that. It’s a beautifully written exploration of marriage, friendship, grief, and mental illness. What do we owe to those we love? What actions are unforgivable? What is the breaking point from which a person can’t recover? Greene said the questions he asked himself when writing the book were, “What happens if you don’t hold it together? What happens if life just completely falls apart?” I think book clubs would run out of time before they ran out of discussion material from The Headmaster’s Wife. (For my original review, which ran in March 2014, click here.)
Thomas Christopher Greene was kind enough to answer some questions for me. In addition to writing fiction (The Headmaster’s Wife is his fourth novel) Greene is the president of Vermont College of Fine Arts.
I’m a bookseller and the first thing I think when I finish a book that I love (such as The Headmaster’s Wife!) is: “How can I sell this book?” If you were me, what would you say about your book to a potential customer?It’s not a book that fits into a “genre” and it has a key plot point that can’t be revealed. Also — keep in mind that many, many customers, when asking for a recommendation, make sure to add that they don’t want to read anything “depressing”.
I think it’s a book that works on many levels. It’s a story about the big things—love, death and marriage. It’s also a book that people have a hard time putting down. So I would tell them leave their expectations behind and don’t start it if they have something important to do the following morning.
It’s a sad fact that most readers of literary fiction are women. Why do you think that is? I’ve always felt men are missing out on many books they would really love for many reasons — a big one being that they were introduced to literary fiction at the wrong age with the wrong books.
Perhaps this is just more proof that women are a more highly evolved species. Kidding. I have heard that as much as 80 percent of fiction is bought by women. I honestly don’t understand it. I read a lot of fiction. And I know plenty of men who do. Perhaps it has to do with childhood roles and expectations, but I have never explored that.
Most creative writing classes and programs seem to focus on short story writing. This seems odd to me, because first, there’s almost no market for short stories anymore, and second, writing a novel is an entirely different endeavor. What’s the role of the short story in today’s literary world?
A short story is easier to teach and assess, for one. I also think that short stories can be, though not exclusively, novels in miniature. I wrote only short stories as a graduate student, and wish I had more time now to write them. It’s a more pristine and less forgiving art form than the novel. But I do think in learning to write it’s a great place to start. It teaches you about structure and economy. That said, I think short stories are feeling a renaissance right now. It’s true the market remains limited but there are fabulous writers working almost exclusively in this form.
Were you a reader as a child, and if so, what were your favorite books?
I was a prolific reader and read everything. I liked mysteries. I read all of Agatha Christie, for instance, by the time I was probably in fourth grade. A book that stands out for me is My Side of the Mountain, about a boy who runs away and lives in a tree in the Catskills.
Are there some contemporary writers you think are under-appreciated? I’m always amazed by how some books, through serendipity, take off, and others — just as good or better — seem to fly under the radar.
I don’t know about under-appreciated, but I have loved books by Anne Enright. Amazing writer. While he’s not contemporary in the sense that he is deceased, the late Andre Dubus is under appreciated by all except serious students of fiction. He is who I read when I am stuck to remind myself why I wanted to do this in the first place. His son, Andre III, is a wonderful writer in his own right and has seen more of the mainstream success his father didn’t have. His memoir Townie is one of my recent favorites.
What was the last truly wonderful book you read — one that you wanted to tell other people to read?
It’s not new but I just read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam. Very smart and lovely novel. Wish I had written it.
Your “day job” is running the Vermont College of Fine Arts, which focuses on graduate education for aspiring writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and composers. How realistic is it for your graduates to make a living in the fine arts? What do you think is the state of the fine arts in our country right now?
I don’t think people should pursue fine arts degrees with employment in mind. I think, in fact, one of the great failings of the conversation around education right now, especially on the undergraduate level, is an over-emphasis on career development. The reason to go to graduate school is to become a better version of yourself, the artist you hope to be. That said, many of our graduates have become successful and renowned practitioners. Many become university professors. I think fine arts are thriving in this country, despite a contrary narrative. And part of this is because of many of the challenges of our times. When things are hard, artists are able to help make sense of the world and define the culture.
What’s your opinion of self-publishing and its place in the literary world?
I have mixed feelings about it. I have friends who choose to self-publish. I do think publishing, when done well, is a team sport though. I certainly don’t want to have to worry about designing covers or choosing fonts or distribution or copyediting. There is also a crucial curation role that publishers play.
If we could have a glimpse of your personal library, what would it look like? How is it organized?
You can have a glimpse of it. While my whole house is a library on some level, the majority of the books are in the dining room by design, since two of my favorite things are books and good convivial meals. I love to cook. My wife is a closet librarian and our books are alphabetized and sorted by genre. I buy new books and only at independent stores. My wife buys used books. We have a lot of fiction. And lots of cookbooks.
What’s the biggest misconception (if there is one) that aspiring writers have? That if they can only master the craft side of fiction, the mechanics, they will find success. That is important, but always exists to serve the larger purpose of story. The only reason to write books is to tell stories to people who aren’t in the same room as you.
The publisher is offering a free paperback copy of The Headmaster’s Wife to one Books on the Table reader — U.S. entries only, please. To enter, please leave a comment or send an email (email@example.com) mentioning your favorite childhood book.
28 thoughts on “10 Questions for Thomas Christopher Greene, Author of The Headmaster’s Wife (Plus a Giveaway!)”
Love this interview; Greene’s comments, book buying philosophy AND home library are inspirational. And FYI: Jean Craighead George was a cousin of our LFBS colleague Ruth Muir! As a child I devoured historical fiction such as Johnny Tremain. I’ll leave your giveaway for others and will go to my favorite independent to buy the book. BUT the People Magazine blurb on the front would deter me from most purchases…just saying. Gloria
Gloria, so interesting about Jean Craighead George — I loved all her books as a child. I loved historical fiction more than anything — couldn’t get enough. I think my favorite in that genre was Across Five Aprils.
I, too, loved Agatha Christie as a child. Hercule Poirot was my favorite character. I also loved the Alfred Hitchcock series called The Three Investigators. I still have all these books and would actually love to give them away to someone who may enjoy. (About 20 books) My boys were never really interested in reading mysteries. I think my favorite single book as a child was “A Wrinkle in Time”. I still have that one on my shelf as well. Thanks, Julie
I was never a mystery reader as a child — in fact, I didn’t even like Nancy Drew. But I LOVED A Wrinkle in Time and reread it every now and then — what a wonderful book!
with 2 unreliable narrators sounds like, it would be interested to compare with Gone Girl. Thanks for the giveaway. My first big crush as a kid was a book I found at our tiny tiny book library. small village, 250 inhabitants. I remember my teacher said it was a boy’s book, not for me! And I loved it so much, it was called Le grand silence blanc [=the great whoite silence, by Louis-Frédéric Rouquette, often called the French Jack London. Come to think of it, I should read it again!
It’s fun rereading books from childhood — it’s amazing how our perspectives change over time.
When I was very young my favorite series was All-of-a-kind Family. To my 1950’s white bread childhood sensibility these books, of a Jewish immigrant family of girls, seemed so foreign yet familiar to me as the oldest of 3 sisters.
Thank you for sharing Mr. Greene’s insights and that inspiring library! I can’t wait to read his book(s).
Oh, I absolutely loved All-of-a-Kind Family also! I still remember the story about one of the girls losing a library book and what a catastrophe that was.
Great interview – very well done!
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I would love to read this! My favorite childhood book was A WRINKLE IN TIME.
I’m having a hard time narrowing my childhood favorites down to one — but A Wrinkle in Time would definitely be one of my top 10!
What a wonderful review and then, interview. Nice piece, Ann. And I love peeking at his library – lovely indeed! I was obsessed with Lad: a Dog books — remember the author’s name: Albert Payson Terhune. I wanted a dog sooo badly and perhaps it was also the influence of Lassie. (Lad and family were Collies.)
Oh, I remember Lad: A Dog. I was obsessed with dog books in general, although strangely I never read Lassie. Maybe because it was already a TV show?
Enjoyed…as always. Fun to see his library/dining room. The Little House and Nancy Drew series were my favorites as a girl. I think The Orenda will sell well in paperback 🙂
Thanks, Molly! I loved the Little House books and read them over and over. Just started Pioneer Girl (on Leeni’s recommendation) and it’s an interesting take on Laura Ingalls Wilder.
What a wonderful post. This was a fascinating interview and enlightening. I am an avid reader ever since I could read and my favorite book was Anne of Green Gables. I borrowed this from the public library and read the entire series in hardcover since that was all that existed at that time. I was transported to another place and era which was captivating and special.
I loved Anne of Green Gables too and have always wanted to visit Prince Edward Island — maybe someday!
I came over here from Jenn’s Bookshelves because I liked what you had to say over there and I like your approach about only posting about books…not blogging. I have always tried to mainly blog about books on my blog and that has been more so since I’ve become more busy in my personal/work life. I don’t have time to talk about my personal and/or blogging on my blog any longer. And I usually try to stay out of the drama. I might talk about it privately with one or two close blogging friends, but that’s usually the extent of it. Life is too short. So, that being said, I’m glad to have found your blog and will now be subscribing. 🙂
And now I will enter the giveaway too! This books sounds wonderful and the author’s library…it’s to die for!!! My favorite children’s book…how do I name just one? For picture books (my younger childhood years), it would have to be The Velveteen Rabbit and The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. From when I was a bit older, it must be Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I’ve read it a bunch of times.
Thanks for the giveaway!
Thanks for stopping by — I’ve just enjoyed exploring your blog and signed up to follow you. It’s always fun discovering new blogs! And yes, it’s so hard choosing just one favorite children’s book. I don’t think I can do it myself! >
Great interview. Would love to win a copy of the book! Sounds good. My favorite books as a child? Hmm. Not to be a cliche but I remember falling deep for Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows. Someday I’ll have to reread these to see if they still hold up. Thanks for the givewaway
I’ve reread both of those several times (read them aloud to my children when they were little) and yes, I think they still hold up. At least, they both made us cry. I love all of E.B. White’s books, but I think The Trumpet of the Swan is my favorite.
Thanks for tip on Trumpet of the Swan …. I have not read it and will definitely add it to my stacks.
It’s really one of the loveliest books ever!
I LOVE this post as much as I loved the book! Getting to read a bookseller’s perspective is so interesting as are the questions you asked Greene. Thoroughly enjoyed this!
I would loved to get a copy of this book, it’s been on my wish list for a while. I loved Nancy Drew, but my favorite book was probably From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler – I loved the idea of living in the museum!
I loved From the Mixed-Up Files as well — what a wonderful book!
My favorite childhood book, and the book that gave me my love of reading, was Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman. My mother bought this for me when it first came out and either she or one of my sisters would read it to me many times over the next few years. I loved it so much that I’m always telling people about it and a few years ago my husband bought me a copy of the book that came with a stuffed dog from the cover. It of course is on display in my house.
What a sweet husband! 🙂
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