A twist in the plot. Julian Gallo discusses his new novel and gives his view on the reality versus perception of self publishing
Author Julian Gallo discusses his new novel Mediterraneo and the influence that the 50 Shades trilogy has had on self-published books.
Julian Gallo is a self-published writer. In the last decade his poetry and short stories have been published across the internet and in print; submissions that were accepted by various literary venues. Gallo has also released four novels through self-publishing sites such as Lulu and Amazon. The reason I started off this article with that first statement is because self-publishing often has a reputation of low quality writing as opposed to the quality of writing found though major publishing houses.
The debate over the quality of self-published versus ‘officially’ published books has been a hot topic lately. The release of 50 Shades of Grey, which was originally self-published and then picked up by a publisher (Arrow) and is now the best-selling book in the UK since records began has brought a new lease of life to the self-publishing quality debate.
Is the writer EL James, the author of 50 Shades of Grey, a good writer? I haven’t read her books so cannot comment on the quality but there’s no doubt over her popularity. There is also no doubt that hype and word of mouth have helped sell the 50 Shades trilogy; it has been heavily promoted using the term “mommy porn” and here in the UK you cannot open the arts section of a newspaper lately without seeing yet another story on EL James. In terms of popularity the hype has made for fantastic sales, but are readers happy that they bought into the hype?
If you are judging the original 50 Shades novel by Amazon reader ratings you can gauge that it is about equal when it comes to five star and one star reviews; half of the people who bought her first book in the series loved it, half hated it. The three 50 Shades books are all in the top 5, best-selling books in the Amazon rankings. I’m pretty much presuming here that people didn’t start buying these books at number two or three but bought the first one and continued on with the sequels. The feedback I obtained when I asked a few readers about the trilogy was that they had become bored before finishing the original book but had bought the sequels because they wanted to find out how the story ended.
This to me seems telling in as much as that although the quality of writing may be poor, as many have stated, James does have a way of hooking her readers, making them curious enough to want to shell out the cash to find out what happens next.
But will the 50 Shades series now make people seriously consider checking out self-published or ‘independent’ writers or will the trilogy simply reinforce the argument that self-published writing is of inferior quality?
As I wrote earlier, before I got caught up in my own self-publishing debate, Julian Gallo has published four novels since 2007. Many writers would love to sell as many copies as EL James or have her popularity but Gallo isn’t actually too concerned about this aspect of writing; he simply writes his books, publishes them and over time has built up his own readership.
I’ve seen Gallo’s writing progress over the course of his four books. His novels are often lengthy, some stretching to almost 600 pages, and usually containing multiple characters with interconnecting storylines. For me, Gallo found his voice with his 2011 novel Naderia, a book that once finished not only makes you immediately want to read it again but also a book that would definitely change your mind if you were under the impression that self-published writing is of inferior quality.
Above all, Gallo’s writing is a blend of intelligence and entertainment. He not only makes you think about the themes he explores but has learnt how to keep his readers turning the pages, to keep them hooked, and that is not an easy thing to do. Mediterraneo, his latest book, is no exception.
Mediterraneo focuses on two New Yorkers who take a vacation to the old country, in this case Southern Italy, to a fictional town in Calabria, where they hope to find some clues about their family history. This sleepy little town slowly begins to reveal extremely dark secrets that have been buried for decades until the newcomers arrive and unknowingly unlock the door to the past.
This is a book where build up is just as important as the pay-off. Gallo drenches you in hot Italian sunshine until you can feel the sweat drip from your forehead. He introduces the cast of characters slowly until you are familiar with them. He has researched Italian folklore and traditions and inserts them into the book for a reason. By the time he has set the scene you feel as if you know this town and its inhabitants, and yet while you bask in the sunshine and enjoy wandering around this little town there is also the feeling that something is coming, something ominous is about to happen and you can feel it creeping up just out of sight. It’s a subtle and unnerving build up that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch film.
To say more would be to give away the twists and turns of this story. One of the twists won’t actually hit you until you have finished reading the book and thought about it for a while. It’s a testament to Gallo’s writing that as someone who thinks they’ve read and seen it all I couldn’t work out what actually lay ahead no matter how hard I tried.
Mediterraneo is probably one of Gallo’s most graphic books in terms of sex and violence and is, as is always the case with his books, completely different from the novel that preceded it or indeed any of his previous novels. Gallo is a self-published author worth a look. If you have previously been of the opinion that independently published books were full of low quality writing then Gallo’s novels should come as a pleasant surprise.
The debate over the quality of self-published books will no doubt continue. But with reports than the major publishers are now scouring the self-publishing websites for future best sellers (Penguin books owner Pearson have just bought an established self-publishing website for $116 million)it could be time to go to these sites directly and discover some writers yourself before the big publishers get there first.
I caught up with Julian Gallo and talked to him about his new novel and the progression of self-publishing.
Unlike your previous books, which were pretty much realism, this one seems to cross over between genres. It has elements of a thriller, supernatural, mysticism, I remember you described it at first as Mediterranean Noir, and to me it also had elements of a Wicker Man type of story – did you intentionally want the reader to have to discover the themes in this book as part of the journey without initially pigeonholing it?
The original intention was to write a book that celebrated Mediterranean culture as a whole, using the idea of two American travellers seeking out their roots who then discover the wealth and beauty of the region and the culture – and that includes not only Italian/Sicilian culture but that of the Levant, as well as Greece, Southern France, Turkey, North Africa. But as I began to write it, it started to move away from that and it took on a much darker tone. I wouldn’t exactly define this book as a “Mediterranean Noir” in the strictest sense but it was most definitely influenced by that genre.
Genre blending is something I always wanted to try out but do it in a way that wouldn’t slap a definitive label on it. The Noir element was definitely a conscious thing since Noir fiction has always heavily influenced me. As far as the themes go, I intentionally left certain things vague – or implied – so that the reader would have to think about things a little, and hopefully participate in the story which is why the flashback scenes were arranged in a non-linear way. There’s a puzzle to put together and I wanted the reader to actively participate in piecing it together.
Although this book is pretty much completely different to your previous one, the theme of identity, finding an identity, does seem to be prevalent throughout all of your books. What interests you about this theme? Are you aware that this is a theme?
Yes, absolutely. I think this is something that I think about a lot with regard to my own life. It’s always been important to me to know who I am and to be myself at all costs. We live in a world, as E.E. Cummings once noted, that is desperately trying to make you be someone else. Looking into my own genealogy, which is what inspired this story, is part of that discovery of who you are and where you come from. Okay, I was born and raised in America and am obviously an American, but my family had strong connections to Italy and Sicily and I grew up with a lot of those customs and traditions which I always thought were different from the typical “American” culture, and these things definitely effect who you are and I suppose that since I’ve always felt a little alienated from the “dominant culture” throughout my life, these stories are a way of working all that out within myself.
It is a very dark book at times. There are some subjects, without giving too much away, which some readers may find a bit disturbing, although you can imagine this happening in these little villages where families have lived for generations. Were you at all wary about reinforcing stereotypes some people have of the inhabitants of these types of tiny villages where everyone seems to be related to each other?
Oh, I’m sure that this element of the story will offend some people but I don’t think it was indicative of the entire village – which is fictional, by the way. The one thing I did have in mind while writing this was how Italians/Italian-Americans are often depicted in literature, film, television and most of the time I consciously try not to feed into these stereotypes and when that element of the story began to evolve, I hesitated, thinking that this isn’t going to help matters any. But then I thought, it’s fiction and it only deals with this one particular group of people who are stuck in the past and can’t seem to move on from a very dark thing that occurred in the town thirty years earlier.
The rest of the inhabitants are very modern but you don’t really “see” them but you get references to their use of cell phones, computers, etc. They are very much rooted in the twenty first century. Also, there’s an implication that some of the town were involved with the ‘ndrangheta – which is the Mafia in Calabria. Normally I wouldn’t have anything to do with Mafia themes because of the stereotypes, which is why it’s not so in your face, but implied. The sick things they do, like kidnappings, etc. Having said that, Mafia themes in Italian themed stories are okay depending on how it’s presented, I think, and I made sure not to glorify it in any way and show it for the nefarious thing it truly is.
There is a chain reaction of events set off simply by the arrival of the two main characters who are unaware of the affect they are having on this little town. The protagonists are completely blind to what is going on around them. Was it difficult to resist the temptation to take the route of revealing all to these two characters?
Absolutely. I really didn’t know where the story was going as I was writing it but I knew “something” was going to happen and the logical thing being that some sort of confrontation was inevitable. When I reached the point of the story where this was about to happen, it occurred to me that many of the threads being woven into the story would have to somehow resolve themselves and it seemed that if the story went that way, God knows how I was going to figure that out.
The book sat dormant for months while I tried to figure out how to resolve all this and then it occurred to me one day that it didn’t have to be that way. There could be another way and the thought occurred to me to try something different, something that would break the reader’s expectations. It may not be satisfactory to everyone but I liked the way it turned out and think it added something different to the story.
You seem to undertake a lot of research when writing your books. I remember you said that you used a family tree to keep track of your characters in Mediterráneo. Do you do this sort of research a lot in your writing?
I had to keep one – a sort of limited one, anyway. I had them all written out and in front of me the whole time because I knew that the scenes that would eventually reveal what had happened would be placed throughout the story in a non-linear way – so I had to do this in order to keep track of who was who, when things should have happened, how old the characters were at the time they happened, things like that. It was a bit of a pain in the ass but in the end it worked.
As far as the other elements in the story, I did some research on Stregheria, which is a form of Italian witchcraft – really more of old pagan traditions but the Church would view it as “witchcraft” – plus some of the historical elements of Southern Italy in general – especially the Arab presence and influence, which is normally never discussed for some reason, the traditions of the Church, etc. Not a lot of research but just enough to lend the story the realism it needs, although some of it is an amalgam of things. The great thing about making the town fictional was the ability to create a world of my own choosing. Some of the Stregheria rituals are actual rituals, others are a combination of things from differing Italian pagan traditions.
Onto self-publishing through which you promote and sell your books. Your answer about the amount of research you do, the quality of writing, the editing, the amount of time you put into each book all goes against the perception that some people still have about quality when it comes to independent authors. The 50 Shades of Grey book seems to either reinforce or discredit the quality argument depending on the reader’s view.
The “50 Shades of Grey” phenomenon is unbelievable, isn’t it? Here is an example of a formerly self-published book that turned people’s perceptions on its head. I haven’t read this book but did sample it on Amazon and I saw right from the first paragraph the problems with it. What it got me thinking was, here is a book with obvious flaws in the writing yet here it is selling 30 million copies and people love it. Kudos to her, I say, although it’s not the kind of book that I would read. Another one of these “fan fiction” based books just got picked up in the wake of the “50 Shades” success – for seven figures, no less.
What’s astonishing to me is that a lot of young writers hear all this advice and are told that it takes XYZ for your work to find a publisher, to be taken seriously, or whatever, and look what you have going on. You just knew it was going to inspire imitators with the hopes of making a lot of money – and the feeding frenzy of major publishers looking for it. It has absolutely nothing to do with quality or the idea of “good writing” like they always tell you. It has to do with money and whether they can sell it – and this plays right into the subject of a writer who chooses to self-publish and those who look down their noses at it – the “serious” writers who insist that it’s a “damaging” way to go, yet look at what goes on in practice. There’s a huge disconnect here, if you ask me.
The debate about self-published books is never ending and the logic behind some of the arguments always has me shaking my head. The logic is that “all self-published books are bad” because quite a few of them perhaps are. Does this logic apply when one reads a badly written book – of which there are many - from a major publisher? To me, a book is either good or bad based on its own merit, not what imprint is slapped on its spine. I think sometimes people need a reason to bitch about something and this debate gives them an excuse to. You can’t have it both ways, you know? I just try to do the best I can and by me bringing out my own books allows me to have complete creative freedom and control over the entire project, which I love. I’m not saying I’d never publish with a major publisher if they were ever interested in me (I haven’t tried yet) but I can almost guarantee you that I would lose some of that creative freedom.
Have you noticed a big change in the progression of self-publishing since you first used it? It seems to have become a hot topic now whereas it was barely mentioned a few years ago? Do you think this may have to do with the fact that some people are claiming to have made millions from self-publishing? Those who offer self-publishing services must be very happy about the way it’s all going now.
I find the whole thing ironic and amusing. To me, self-publishing, as I said in the past, is no different than musicians who release their own CDs or filmmakers who finance, make and release their own films. It was only in the realm of literature where independent artists were looked down upon. I think a lot of this has to do with the nature of those involved in it. With music and film you have a lot more latitude, I think.
Literature has always been the realm of intellectuals and the universities and sometimes they can be a little too pompous and self-important, writers included. I find that writers tend to be an extremely competitive breed and I don’t understand why this is. Of course, musicians and filmmakers are as well but not nearly to the extent writers are from my experience. There is this tendency for extreme pettiness that I just can’t get my mind around. I’m always thrilled when a writer I know succeeds and I’ve always done my best to help promote other writers spread the word. I don’t feel I’m in competition with anyone.
We all have our own vision, ideas, etc and I can’t understand where this all comes from. But it’s interesting to me to see how that now some writers are making money self-publishing, all of a sudden the “stigma” is disappearing and it’s being taken more seriously now – even at this year’s Book Expo in New York, there was a whole panel discussion and seminar on it. Perhaps the literary world is finally catching up with everyone else, I don’t know. It was bound to happen sooner or later, I think.
There are many articles now about the rules you must follow re social media if you want to obtain a large readership. What’s your take on the debate on whether writers must use social media to attract readers?
I think the use of social media is a great thing for independent artists of all stripes. But there is a caveat. The “rules” are something marketing people and others who are looking to capitalize on the recent surge in independent projects taking place out there. Technology and the social media in general kicked open a door that wouldn’t budge twenty years ago for many artists. Now you can reach a potential audience with just a click of a button. When I started writing and publishing in the mid-1990s, things were still done via print, photocopies, stamps, envelopes, etc.
With the internet, websites, social media, etc, the world is at your fingertips now. The thing is, though, that these articles and these folks who are in the business of “showing you how to capitalize” on it present it all as if it’s the easiest thing in the world, often taking advantage of those who still have stars in their eyes.
While it’s certainly helped me in the past few years, it’s still not a guarantee that you will sell a lot of books. I’m happy that I sold more this year than I did last year but the numbers are not even close to how they tell you it will be. I can happily say that my books have supplemented my general income over the past year but nowhere near enough that I can just quit my job and stay home and write. I’ve always kept things in perspective. The problem with all these “rules” is that just because one or two break out of the pack, they think all one has to do is just follow a few simple steps and you’ll sell a million books too. This won’t happen. As I said before, getting people you know to buy your book is difficult enough – should I expect total strangers to come knocking down my door for them?
For most of us, it’s a slow, grinding process and sometimes it even seems futile but when you take a step back and look at where you were in comparison to where you are now, you see forward movement and that’s exciting but you still have to keep your feet on the ground. There are no guarantees and certainly no quick ways to earn money from all this. My advice would be for writers to keep writing, keep trying to improve and hope for the best. Do it because you love it and not because you think it’s a short cut to fame and fortune. Trust me, it isn’t.
What’s next on the writing front?
I currently have two novels in the works. I set one aside for the meantime because another idea came to me and the momentum seems to be with this one. It’s going to be set in Budapest and the subject matter has to do with fascism – but not necessarily political fascism (although that is part of it) but a “fascism of the heart” and a “fascism of the soul” so to speak – the way relationships can be controlling and manipulative, the quest for power over another. How people have this intense desire to want things they way they want them and will go to whatever lengths to get them, including destroying other people in the process. It’s got a little surrealist twist.
Again, it’s kind of bleak in tone but it is what it is (or it is what it appears to be at the moment). I’ve only written about 50 pages so far but it’s coming along and I’m excited about it because it’s something different for me. I’m hoping to complete it and have it ready for some time in 2013.
To hear more about Mediterraneo and listen to an interview between Dean Walker and Julian Gallo visit Expats Radio.
Tags: 50 shades of grey, amazon, Authors, EL James, independent, interview, julian gallo, self-published, self-publishing, writers