Darcie Chan has the kind of publishing story that makes every scribbler with a novel in their heart sit up and take notice: in 2011, after finding little success landing a publisher for her first book, she decided to take a chance on self-publishing online. Three years and hundreds of thousands of downloads later, her debut, The Mill River Recluse, is coming out in print for the first time, followed by The Mill River Redemption this August. Both are set in the small town of Mill River, a place with its fair share of secrets, upheaval, and eccentric characters. I had a chance to meet with the incredibly warm and incredibly humble Chan during Book Expo America last month, where we talked about her books, her inspiration, and her unorthodox path to print publication.
When you first self-published, it was a slow roll, because you put it out into the world and it took a while for the world to notice. But this one has a publish date (today!) where it’s being released to the public all at once. Is that scary?
It is. I was just telling my husband last night that I’m sort of getting the release date jitters. I’ve been through the whole process now and pretty much the next thing is that it’s going to be printed and then, you know, shipped out into the world. And we’re starting to get early reviews now, so yeah, it’s actually happening.
On your self-publishing journey, at what moment did you realize you’d crossed a bridge and it had become a success?
You know, when I self-published Recluse, it was not with the intent to start a career in publishing, because at that point I really had no idea that was even a possibility. I was more looking for feedback for the story I’d written, I never expected the sales to take off. I was kind of dumbfounded, actually. I guess when my agent sent me the New York Times best-seller list and said, “Look at number 12; there you are,” that was the turning point, when I thought, “This is serious.” The sales were going up, the sales were going up, and I would think, “Okay, surely this is the peak, it’s not going to go up higher than this.” But once the New York Times hit, then it took off, it took on a new life of its own. And I think it’s just because you get a lot of media attention once you’re on the Times list. People started emailing me, “Why don’t you have this in print somewhere? I saw it on the Times list and I went to my bookstore to buy it and it’s not there.” So at that point it just kind of went crazy and I knew that something would probably change, although I didn’t know exactly how it was going to happen.
If you could give one piece of advice to people who are self-publishing, in terms of staying above the fray, what would it be?
I guess I would say two things. I tried to produce a book as close in quality to a traditionally published manuscript as I could—in making the cover, in editing the story, in developing the story. And I tried to ask myself, in terms of doing the cover, would this be a cover that would fit on bookstore shelves? Just make the quality of whatever it is you’re producing as high as you can. In hindsight, I wish I’d hired an editor, I wish I’d hired a professional formatter, I wish I’d paid for a professional cover. Many people now who do this do engage these professionals, and I think the quality of self-published books is better because of it, but at the time I was just putting it out there for feedback, I wasn’t looking to start a new career for myself.
And then the second thing is, I think when you write a story—and this is something that I still tell myself today when I’m writing—you really have to connect emotionally with the characters and you really have to put your heart into what you’re writing. Because the books that people remember move them emotionally. Whether they scare the bejeezus out of you or they make you cry, or it’s just something that makes you see a relationship in a whole new way, or maybe you’re laughing and you just can’t get a funny scene out of your mind, if it moves you emotionally, you’ll remember it. And chances the reader will enjoy it, too, because it means that the people and the characters and the situations are real. And I would say that that’s what you should aim to do, regardless of whether you’re going to traditionally publish or self-publish, just make the story as emotionally deep as you can.
What have you lost and gained in going from being a total independent, with every success all your own, to being part of a team that’s making this book?
It’s actually been a complete relief for me. I couldn’t ask for a better experience, really. I always wanted to work with a really good editor, and I’ve had that opportunity now, and it was even better than I thought it would be. It was a relief not having to worry about, “Okay, does my cover look right? Why can’t I get Photoshop to do what I want it to do?” It was a relief not having to worry about asking people to review the book, and getting rejections, and trying to find places to publicize it. It has just been an absolute joy.
Can you tell me a little about the call you got, when you found out your book was going to be picked up for print publication?
It was an offer for a two-book deal, for two books that were set in the same fictional town as Recluse. Which was a great idea for me, because it made me feel like, “Okay, I’ve been here before, I can do this, I feel comfortable writing in this place.” That was just life-changing. And it happened right before Christmas in 2011. It was a call, and (my agent) was like, “Well, congratulations, you have a two-book deal.” Those were words that I’d waited a long, long time to hear. And you know the rights sale for Recluse went through this past year, and that’s just the icing on the cake.
When you wrote the second Mill River book, you were returning to a world that already has so many fans. Was it more freeing or more constricting to write a second book in this world that you’ve created?
It was comforting, because it felt familiar to me. As a writer you always hear about how difficult the second book is going to be, and that was at the back of my mind at all times. It will be the first book I have in print that hasn’t been read in another format, so the fact that I was able to re-enter that world was very comforting. But I did want to come up with something that was equally satisfying for readers, and characters I could relate to myself because I think that if you can’t get into the mind of your character when you’re writing then it isn’t going to be a very emotionally resonating story. So mainly I was just really trying to come up with something that would make the readers really happy.
Who was the first person that you let read your book between writing and publishing it?
Oh, I had a lot of readers. I think it was probably a tie between my parents and my younger sister Carrie—she’s the middle sister, Molly is the youngest one. And beyond that, you know I had about a dozen people that I gave it to once I’d finished the first draft and then once I’d sort of edited it more. And I had to really encourage some people who read it, I’m like, “You’re not going to hurt my feelings if you tell me something negative about it, I’d rather know now and be able to address it than have it be a bad experience for someone who may pick it up and read it.” And I will say that every person that I had read the manuscript as a beta reader or a test reader gave me a suggestion or found something that I needed to work on that no one else found. So I thought that was phenomenal.
I get the sense that for your book to be such a success as self-published literary fiction is really rare. Is that true that self-published genre fiction is generally more in demand?
From what I’ve seen, there’s a huge demand for self-published romance and books in the new adult genre that’s become sort of prominent in the last couple years And I think there’s some science fiction and mystery and things. But I don’t even know that I would call (my work) literary fiction; I’ve always thought of it as mainstream fiction but somehow it just fell into the label literary fiction—I always just tried to write a story that I thought a lot of people might enjoy. That’s just the definition that I had of it in my mind.
When you were a young person becoming a writer or aspiring to be a writer, what were the books that inspired you?
Oh, I was so obsessed with the Black Stallion series. I think I drove my parents crazy because I could quote from those—there were twelve in the original series—and there were some that I had almost memorized, I’d read them so many times. Beyond that I read so much as a kid, you know, Life Nature Library books, my mom picked up a set of those at a yard sale, and at dinner for the next year I would regale them with nature facts about different animals and lizards. But I think the two series that I read most when I was very young were the Black Stallion series and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I still have those in my office on the shelf, and as soon as my son is old enough to sit through a book of that length, I’m going to crack those out for him.
You said something earlier about trying to make a book that is emotionally moving and memorable. For you, what are those books, that most move you and that you always go back to?
I read Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper several years ago, and I usually don’t cry or become super outwardly emotional when I read something, but that just got me. That totally got me. Also I remember reading On Writing, by Stephen King, and just laughing. That one just cracked me up in so many places; he has such a good sense of humor and it really came out.
And his story of selling his first book is so thrilling. Oh, my God.
Yes. And I just kind of melted when he talked about how he didn’t know what to do but he wanted to buy his wife a present, and all he could get was a hair dryer at the drugstore on a Sunday. And he got her a hair dryer. I thought that was very sweet. Oh, and there’s a book, I think I recommended it in Redemption. It’s called Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, and it’s the story of a circus elephant and her life-long companion/owner, and their bond that lasted fifty years. They were separated at one point, and they were reunited at the end when they were both very old for their species. Okay, that was another tear-jerker for me. It was just the most gorgeous story.
Interview ends, because everyone’s getting emotional about the elephant.
Darcie Chan’s The Mill River Recluse is out today!