In a year when we couldn’t get together for launches—and when books provided so much comfort for so many of us—I’ve been thinking a lot about first-time authors. After toiling by themselves for so long, they had to celebrate their book’s debut in different ways than they’d imagined and get creative with their launches (or, in some cases, just wing it). I wanted to recognize their resilience, so I spoke with the writers of some of my favourite debuts about how they navigated bringing their babies into 2020.
ZOM-FAM by Kama LaMackerel
Kama LaMackerel is a cornerstone of Montreal’s queer community. The founder and host of GENDER B(L)ENDER, a queer and trans open stage, their performative works always offer a joyful and lyrical celebration of love, justice and trans-femininity. When Metonymy Press announced their debut poetry collection, I was excited.
ZOM-FAM is a very personal coming-of-age tale of a gender-creative kid on the small plantation island nation of Mauritius in the ’80s and ’90s. Over eight long-form lyric poems, LaMackerel invokes the spirit of their ancestors and explores their own identity as a part of a mixed-race family—the descendants of those enslaved and indentured. All their life, LaMackerel has existed at the intersections of gender, ethnicity, religion and language—identities that are all rendered beautifully in this collection of poems.
For their book launch, LaMackerel had planned a six-week coast-to-coast tour with stops at bookstores, galleries, universities, festivals and a number of LGBTQ2S+ and/or BIPOC community spaces. ZOM-FAM isn’t just a book: It was also going to be an interdisciplinary performance that would tour Canadian cities.
“I first of all realized that I had to grieve—both the performance and the book tour—and let go of what I had imagined bringing this book into the world would be,” LaMackerel says. “I was blessed enough to have my book come out in mid-September, which offered me the perfect window to do sunset readings in parks.” They also arranged a virtual national tour, connecting with independent booksellers and local writers in Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
“Ultimately, it was a great experience. I feel I made the most out of it. I had a different outfit picked for each of my launches, and I dressed up and put on make-up to get myself and others excited about the events, even if we were not physically communing in a space,” LaMackerel says. “For each of my book launches, I was in conversation with a local QT/BIPOC artist or writer. It’s these conversations that made the experience meaningful.”
After Elias by Eddy Boudel Tan
Eddy Boudel Tan must have an incredible work ethic, because he banged out the first draft of his novel After Elias in less than a year. It wasn’t long before he landed himself an agent and a two-book contract with Dundurn Press.
The story of a gay man whose fiancé dies in a plane crash the week before the two are set to marry, After Elias is as much a captivating page-turner as it is a study in grief. The book opens with botanist Coen Caraway on his own in Mexico, finishing up the last-minute details before the couple’s guests are set to arrive for their destination wedding. But soon, on TV screens around the hotel, he begins to see images of a passenger plane that has crashed in the Arctic Ocean. He learns that Elias, his husband-to-be, was piloting that plane, and that there are no survivors. In his grief, Coen decides to turn his wedding into a wake, instructing his guests to still come to celebrate Elias’ memory. In doing so, the curtain gets pulled back on the couple’s life together and we learn more about what these two men really meant to each other.
Always one to do it up well, Tan planned to host his book launch at a Tiki bar in the Waldorf, a retro hotel in Vancouver that had inspired one of the novel’s settings.“There are palm trees, lights in the ceiling that look like stars in the night sky and space for over a hundred guests,” Tan says. “Olin Brix, a funky local musician, was set to perform, and there was going to be games, readings and a corner where people could have their photos taken in front of a tropical backdrop that resembled my book’s cover. I was even going to have the bartenders dress like pilots!”
When it looked like it would be impossible to have an in-person launch, Tan shifted the party online. He began researching different broadcasting platforms and reached out to other artists (including musician Jackie Nguyen and yours truly) to assist him in a virtual launch. And he made sure that Iron Dog Books, who was going to be the official local bookseller of the in-person event, would still be the one to sell signed copies.
In the end, he had a blast (I did too). “We had guests attend from as near as six blocks away and as far as Indonesia. Friends, family, colleagues and supporters were able to join without having to be in Vancouver,” Tan says. “Seeing all these people together in a virtual room was really special, and this wouldn’t have been possible with the original plan.”
Hopefully he’ll have another shot at an in person event when his second
All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad
This novel may be Ilana Masad’s literary debut, but it isn’t the first one she’s written. “People often assume that the first book that comes out is the author’s first go,” Masad said. “That wasn’t the case for me. This was the fourth book I had sent out to agents—and it’s important for me to say that, because so many of us struggle for so long.”
All My Mother’s Lovers tells the story of Maggie Krause, a self-medicating millennial lesbian navigating her first serious relationship. After receiving a call from her brother that their mom has just died, Maggie returns home, where it becomes clear that her parents didn’t have a perfect relationship. While making funeral arrangements, she finds five sealed envelopes, each addressed to a different man. Instead of sitting shiva, Maggie runs from her grief and takes off on a road trip to hand-deliver these envelopes in an attempt to better understand the mother with whom she was always at odds. With several chapters narrated from her mother’s perspective, the book offers a witty and touching view of relationships, sexuality, motherhood and marriage.
Masad was set to fly from her home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to New York City for a launch hosted by bestselling author Kristen Arnett at the legendary Strand bookstore. There were also plans for an event in Chicago, but as cities began to go into lockdown, Masad realized all this was probably not going to happen. Ultimately, she had an impromptu, physically distanced launch outdoors with some friends who surprised her with notes of love and support written in chalk on the asphalt outside of her home. “My partner even managed to get a local bakery to make me a book cake with my cover, which was something I was really hoping for.”
In the end, Masad thinks she ended up doing more events than she would have done in person, since she didn’t have to travel from her Nebraska home. Of all the events, though, her first digital launch in May remains her favourite. “It was early days when we still hadn’t figured out how to do the Zoom webinars where you can only see the presenters,” she said. “It was great because I could scroll through the squares and see the faces of everyone who was there. Since then, everything’s gotten a lot more professional—but I actually find it lonelier when it’s just you and one other person.”
You Will Love What You Have Killed by Kevin Lambert
Although Kevin Lambert has already published two books in French, You Will Love What You Have Killed is the 27-year-old author’s English-language debut and was set to introduce the award-winning author to a whole new demographic of readers in the country.
The story of a small Quebec town where its dead children enact revenge on the adults who’ve betrayed them, You Will Love is based on the author’s own youth in Chicoutimi. In breathtaking and over-the-top prose, Lambert explores the angst and frustration of growing up gay in the narrow-minded and homophobic suburbs. And though the kids in this story may indeed die at the hands of the town’s adults, they still return to school the next day (along with the memory of their trauma). The character Faldistoire is our guide through this strange and magic-realist landscape as he quietly plots retaliation.
Lambert’s novel came out during a busy season: “Something like 300 books came out in Canada in one day at the start of September,” says Michaela Stephen of Biblioasis, which published You Will Love. “We worried it wouldn’t get the attention it deserved, so we did have to get a little creative promoting the book.”
The publisher created a quirky book trailer about the children who are murdered in the novel, hoping to catch the eye of fans of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey. Biblioasis promoted the book more on social media than through events. And since Book Looks have become very popular on Twitter and Instagram, one of Biblioasis’ employees did a look inspired by Kevin Lambert’s cover design.
Knot Body by Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch
A hybrid collection of essay, poetry and letters to “lovers, friends and in-betweens,” Knot Body is a deeply personal, honest and revealing account of living with fibromyalgia. Delving headfirst into topics like fatphobia, ableism, illness and disability, Eli Tareq El Bechelany-Lynch creates a larger vocabulary to talk about their pain, offering a powerful and sympathetic portrait of what they call “a body in pause.”
Originally, El Bechelany-Lynch imagined a tour that would take them across Canada, with a few stops in the U.S. “A big part of reading for me is getting people’s reactions, reading in the flesh,” they say. “I love engaging with new audiences, so I was really excited to do that for my first book and felt fairly disappointed when I realized that was no longer possible.” But, they add: “Everyone’s kind of in the same boat. So many accommodations have been put into place to help us launch our books into the world.” Because their book was published in September, El Bechelany-Lynch managed to organize a small outdoor launch with their nearest and dearest on a friend’s rooftop terrace. They got out a measuring tape to figure out how many people could safely gather then streamed the event on Instagram Live as the sky turned gold and a string of lights came on. “It felt so nice to engage with a live audience,” says El Bechelany-Lynch, who has another book, The Good Arabs, due to come out next fall. “And I was told it made the experience more pleasurable for those watching from home.”