Articles: A Lyrical Novelist: Elyse Singleton




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Tara Casanova

Every first-time novelist’s book is born on the critical list. Up to 65,000 books a year are released in the US alone. And that makes Elyse Singleton’s novel THIS SIDE of the SKY — about four extraordinary people navigating extraordinary times — statistically ordinary.

"It has won rave reviews and been chosen as one the Barnes and Noble Discover Great Writers selections," Singleton says. "But still I must keep appearing at signings and readings and do news and TV interviews. This is all to fight for my baby’s life, so that it will not be like most of its peers, i.e., relegated to the bargain bins in three months and permanent obscurity in six months.

"For the first time in my life, much of which I have spent pounding away on computer keyboards as a classically invisible freelance journalist, I will have to seek attention," Singleton says. "I will need to court celebrity."

Like many writers Singleton is accustomed to solitude. In the mid-90s, as she was working on THIS SIDE of the SKY, Singleton persevered in the cozy confines of her apartment. When not off on travel writing assignments, she was the deepest of recluses. The only lifestyle differences between Singleton and the Unabomber, who hibernated in a remote Montana shack, Singleton says the bomber mailed more packages, but she had better furniture.

"In the last few months, I have gone from being a low-key member of the media to being courted by the media," Singleton says. "Reporters from Publishers Weekly and The Rocky Mountain News have interviewed me. The Denver Post and The Washington Post have reviewed. Essence features THIS SIDE of the SKY in its October new books section, in an article that calls it "a gem - the perfect book to curl up with." Today’s Black Woman has praised it, also.

"And that’s not enough. My publicist and I continue to contact media outlets _ radio, TV and print _ all over the nation. We will try to convince editors and producers that I am interesting enough to cover, whether that’s true or not."

Singleton says acquaintances, friends, her mother, people she doesn’t know, even: They all say that they know she’ll be on Oprah. But she have yet to hear the phone ring, pick it up and hear Oprah say she’s going to be on Oprah. And she’s still exploring what it might take to capture the awareness of any talk show host.

"What does one do to be noticed?" Singleton ask. "Thinking about that has made me more understanding of Hollywood types and why they tell all their business to People Magazine or turn up in ridiculously revealing clothes that turn their butts into their business cards.

"Next time I see Tony Braxton, on TV, at an award ceremony in an open-air evening gown with side torso slits so wide a marching band could stomp through, I will almost sympathize," Singleton says. "When J. Lo. again turns up at a gala in a glittery concoction with a neckline so low it seems it is seeking the earth’s core, I’ll get the point. For the first time in my private, quiet life, I know what it is like to want to be known."

Singleton says fortunately, it isn’t her navel that needs to be known, though, merely her book and byline. Even that — in the noisy, crazy tower of babble and flash that is the American media marketplace is not easy.

From the time, THIS SIDE of the SKY was sold to Penguin Putnam, every detail that could effect sales received consideration. The cover went through at least five drafts. The Publishers nixed Singleton’s working title, One Perpetual Moment, saying that it was a "nonimagistic abstract concept." She says maybe they were right, it wasn’t memorable enough. After all, her mother kept calling it, "One Impetuous Moment."

"I submitted a list of other possible titles," Singleton says. "From those, the editor and his colleagues chose "The Other Side of the Sky." After tossing and turning and rolling into the fetal position that night, I decided the choice was all wrong and the novel should be called THIS SIDE of the SKY. They said, okay. But after another fetal-position night, I was again sure the book should be "The Other Side of the Sky." So for a week I walked around in a daze of confusion, not knowing whether my book would be this side of the sky or the other.
"Then there was the matter of my own name. More confusion ensued. I chose to use my middle name on the book cover; I think it’s more attractive than my first. Now people who have called me Janet are asking if they should call me Elyse. My mother is annoyed because when she went to my first book signing, she introduced herself to a cluster of guests as ‘Janet’s mother.’ They gave her a blank stare. ‘People think I’m not your mother,’ she complained to me, ‘because I don’t know your name.’"

Singleton says, it’s all temporary, though, and the name that’s picked from the hat will be tossed to the wayside in due time. That’s what Friends’ David Schwimmer said when she interviewed him for USA Today. "There‘s some madman with a spotlight in the sky who’s random about where it falls, and just as quickly as it falls onto you, it could move onto somebody else," he said.

"Sure fame is fickle and that’s fine," Singleton says. "I don’t need it to be faithful. I just need it to throw enough shimmery glitz my way to illuminate my book and establish an audience for it and those that will follow. Then it can go and bother someone else."

Singleton admits this moment in the sun has been more than just strange stares. Continually having readers she doesn’t know tell me how much they enjoyed my book, how it made them laugh and cry has been a surreal and fantastic experience.

"Yet, I know that when I leave the podiums and the readings and signings are over," Singleton says, "I still will have the attention of friends and family who knew my name before it had any chance of becoming a brand name. They’ll say, as they always have, ‘We’re proud of you, girl.’ And most of the time, that’s all the celebrity I need."


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