Math for the Literary Inclined
Also known as: Munroe vs. Lisbeth, and How it all Played Out
In early 2009, while THE INFORMATIONIST was sitting with my agent and had yet to be picked up by a publishing house, I sent a copy of the manuscript to a friend who is an avid reader. She loved the story and I was happy, and that was that until a short while later when she contacted me with news of a book she'd just read that had a character that reminded her a lot of Vanessa Michael Munroe.
That was the first time I'd heard of Lisbeth Salandar, and my initial reaction was Oh crap!
Worried that a book with a character similar to mine would make it more difficult to get THE INFORMATIONIST under contract, I Googled to find out more about this "other Munroe," and such was my introduction to Stieg Larsson and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO.
I had no idea at the time--and how could I have?--that this "other Munroe" would turn out to be one of my greatest assets as a debut novelist, and a constant thorn in my ego.
Advance reader copies of THE INFORMATIONIST went out in late 2010 and early 2011, and it didn't take long before more comparisons to Lisbeth Salander arrived, now from critics, reviewers and other authors. I still hadn't read the Millennium series but figured the books were popular and I was not, so these comparisons must be a good thing.
But then, as the weeks drew on, the comparisons just kept on coming. Kept coming to the point that it would seem as if only one other tough heroine had ever existed in all of fiction and, depending on the point of view, I'd either been the genius who thought of creating a second or I'd copied Larsson as a way to ride the tough-girl gravy train.
After a while interviewers began asking how I felt about the Munroe/ Lisbeth comparisons, and that was a difficult question to answer because there were so many facets to it. For starters, fiction is very hard to break into. In this glutted market where it's nearly impossible to get noticed, what debut author wouldn't want their work to appeal to the huge fan base that accompanies over 50 million copies sold worldwide? On a theoretical level I understood the comparisons and I was grateful for the exposure and I knew without a doubt that so many of my readers would have never heard of me or even picked up one of my books were it not for the comparisons.
But even the most positive among us might find it hard to imagine any artist, in any creative field, truly enjoying their original work being framed in the context of someone else's. Under those circumstances, even the best comparisons are tinged with an "also ran" "second to get here" sort of feeling. Having grown up dirt poor, with no voice, and having had self-confidence and all manner of pride punished out of me (quite literally) I didn't feel ego-bruising as much as I did gratitude for having being mentioned at all. I did feel disappointment when I realized the comparisons had created a "robbing experience" for some readers, where they went into the story expecting something that didn't actually exist. Those who believed the book would be more like Larsson's came away feeling cheated, disappointed, and sometimes very angry and vocal. And while it's true that these readers may have come away disappointed, angry, and vocal even without the comparisons, that would have been based entirely on the book's own merits, or lack thereof.
But where it got hard--really, really hard, was when the accusations of having torn a page out of someone else's book, so to speak, started rolling in. I'd educated myself, taught myself to write, had avoided anything Africa-related as I wrote so to keep from being subconsciously influenced by other ideas, yet after all that I was being publicly lambasted for imitating a creative work I'd never read, and was being publicly mocked for having produced such a crappy imitation of the work I’d never read.
My sensitive and already delicate self-confidence hardly knew what to do because there had been inspiration, if not imitation, in my art--and maybe if I'd read Larsson, I would have drawn from Lisbeth, too, but I hadn't. Jason Bourne and Lara Croft were the emotional birth of Vanessa Michael Munroe, and I'd said that from the beginning. I'd thought that rationally explaining this might make a difference, but it didn't. Reiterations of having never read the TATTOO books or (later) watched the movies, turned into: "Stevens claims she's never read Larsson, but it's obvious that..."
Ironically, if anyone had ever been willing to look at the publishing timeline, what I said on the matter would have been irrelevant, but I discovered that few people care to unlearn what they already know. As an ancient wise man once said, "Every man is right in his own eyes." I also learned that people were going to believe what they wanted to believe. I should have been able to just laugh at the ignorance and continue writing the best that I knew how. That was the moral of the story, right? That's the unspoken expectation placed upon us, isn't it? Move on and pretend that hurt doesn't exist, never let the critics know that they got to us because hurt feelings are for losers, and only weak people let words and ignorance bother them? I could pretend, sure, and as my skin thickened and confidence grew it got easier to ignore as well, but I'd also be lying if I said that as time went on and the ignorance, and sometimes personal attacks, continued, that it didn't still occasionally get to me. Which is why, I guess, I finally wrote this down--so I could say my piece and be done with it.
So, for posterity and for the curious, here are the timelines compared between THE INFORMATIONIST and DRAGON TATTOO:
- Started: Early 2005, based on earliest available drafts and handwritten notes.
- Finished: mid-February 2008, based on handwritten notes.
- Agent search begun: February 22, 2008, based on email files.
- Agent representation: Initial response on April 28, 2008, based on email files.
- Sold to publisher: July, 2009, based on hand written notes, email, and information readily available on the Internet.
- Published: March, 2011, based on information readily available on the Internet.
That's six years from start to finish, three in which (February 2008--March 2011) either the query--which mentioned similarities to Bourne and Croft but nothing about Salander-- and/or the manuscript were in the hands of industry professionals.
GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
- Started: No idea, but these books were complete when the author died in 2004, as per Wikipedia.
- Published in Swedish: August? 2005, as per Wikipedia
- First published in English in the UK: January, 2008, as per Wikipedia
- Published in English in the US: September, 2008, as per Wikipedia.
Based on these dates a reasonable person should be able to see the timing overlap between when the first TATTOO book was published in English, and when INFORMATIONIST was in the hands of industry professionals but, for further clarification:
In late summer of 2005 when Larsson's work was published in Sweden, I was living in Dallas and had already started crafting THE INFORMATIONIST. One could theorize that it was then, in those early stages of writing that I learned about a random book published in Europe and went, "ZOMG, in three years that book is going to be translated and published in English and go on to become an international bestseller! I'm going to find a way to get it, translate it, read it, and then get busy so that I can ride those future bestseller coattails." But you see, in that fantasy land of make-believe, with skills of prediction like that, I wouldn't have become a novelist, I would have been a human version of Paul the Octopus, picking acquisitions and placing bets and escaping a life as chum.
In the land of not-make-believe, if I could speak Swedish fluently enough to read and understand a book like DRAGON TATTOO, (I speak and understand no Swedish) I would have had career options and as such would have never written INFORMATIONIST to begin with.
The only other way it would have been possible for me to copy/imitate/mimic Larsson's work was if I'd obtained and read the English UK version when it was first released in January 2008 and then proceeded to pound out, re-write, polish and edit a 110,000 word manuscript, plus kick-ass query letter, in less than 1.5 months in order to begin submitting it to agents in the final week of February 2008.
There are some authors who can do this--or something close to it--but if I had those crafting abilities, I'd be on my, oh, I dunno, 60th book by now. And, since in this example I would have also had to have predicted a future bestseller with which to hitch that writer-imitation rocket, I would have also done that multiple times and by now I'd be a gazillionaire instead of slogging it out one book at a time.
That, my friends, is math for the literary inclined.
Taylor Stevens is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling novelist who—by odds and expectations—should never have become either successful or published. Like many aspiring authors Stevens had no credentials or platform, and no direct route into the publishing world. But, unlike most, she was also limited by a life of cultural isolation and a sixth-grade education.
Born into an apocalyptic cult and raised in communes across the globe, Stevens grew up as a child laborer, cooking and cleaning for up to a hundred at a time, caring for younger commune children, or out on the streets begging on behalf of commune leaders. Books, movies, music, and pop-culture from the outside world were strictly forbidden, and she finally gained unlimited access to fiction after returning to the United States in her early thirties. Her books have since been published in over twenty languages, with The Informationist optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment.