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Kickstart Your Book: A Conversation with Alexander Lumans

ALEXANDER LUMANS was the Spring 2014 Philip Roth Resident at Bucknell University. He has been awarded fellowships to the Arctic Circle, MacDowell, Yaddo, VCCA, and Blue Mountain Center, and scholarships to Bread Loaf and Sewanee. He received the 2013 Gulf Coast Fiction Prize. His fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Blackbird, Cincinnati Review, Black Warrior Review, and The Normal School, among others. He graduated from the MFA Fiction Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He now teaches at University of Colorado-Denver and Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop.

EDMUND SANDOVAL: You’re writing a book—a novel—on an arctic sailing crew and the changing climate. Can you tell us a little more about that?
ALEXANDER LUMANS: I wish I could tell you more about the novel, but it’s under so much construction right now that to mention anything would be like saying, “It has a steeple and a moat and a shark tank somewhere,” only to have that steeple crumble and moat dry up and the sharks turn into a school of clownfish within a matter of weeks. It’s simply too early to tell. What I can tell are some of the texts I have in mind: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, Andrea Barrett’s novels, and H. P. Lovecraft’s Collected Works. That isn’t to say the novel is going to resemble any of them—they’re the spiritual parents of this book, this creature I’m assembling from their DNA.

And how’d you go about researching this book-in-progress? Something about a Barquentine Tall Ship and a frosty trip to Svalbard, Norway?
For research, I knew I’d have to visit the Arctic. No way around it. So, I was extremely fortunate to be accepted as a Fellow on The 2015 Summer Solstice Arctic Circle Residency. The residency breaks down to a three-week Arctic trip aboard a three-masted tall ship. We sailed around the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

How’d you end up funding this trip?
While the residency does pay for part of the fellowship, you are still responsible for some residency fees, as well as transportation. This, among other expenses, like lobster gloves and balaclavas, adds up quickly. I ran a Kickstarter Campaign to help allay the costs.

Perhaps this is due to my living under a really big rock, but this is the first time I’ve heard of an author using Kickstarter for the express purpose of research. Before you went the Kickstarter route, did you consider the traditional paths to getting your project funding? Grants and fellowships and the like?
Trust me, I tried tons of paths in search of project funding. I applied for art grants. I inquired about sponsorships from outdoor suppliers to local breweries. I sent off requests for international scholarships. I scoured about for any glossy or institution that might be willing to have me write about my experience and/or represent their company. Everything came up nil. By that point, I’d already put down sizable deposits for the residency. I knew I had Kickstarter as a backup plan, but I still panicked. I’d backed myself into a financial corner. Yet, the more I began to research past artists and writers who had attended the Arctic Circle Residency via Kickstarter Campaigns, the more doable this crazy crowdfunding seemed. After I planned my campaign and submitted it to Kickstarter for approval, there was another moment of panic: they rejected my campaign. They said Kickstarter doesn’t provide a platform of funding for things like travel and residencies; instead, they fund projects. So, I had to rearrange a lot of my emphasis in the campaign material, focusing instead on the fact that I was writing a novel (and that part of the funding would help me bring this novel into the world via paying for this particular residency). On the residency itself, I met other artists who’d covered their costs via Kickstarter, so I was glad to see I was not alone in this approach. Everyone had had successful campaigns with a variety of rewards. One of my favorite rewards involved an artist shooting videos of herself shouting the names of her donors into the Arctic tundra. Watching someone yell, “Pat!” at a glacier is priceless.

Did you have any trepidation before hitting the Kickstart button and sharing your funding goal with the world?
Oh, absolutely. If I hadn’t had a specific calendar plan with an obvious deadline and already chosen launch date, I would have let my finger hover over the Launch button for days and days. Once it’s launched, it’s out there. For good. You can’t stop it. I had to psych myself up by listening to very loud, very appropriate Norwegian metal before finally clicking that big blue button. Norwegian metal always works.

How confident, or unconfident, were you that you would reach your funding goal? I’ve seen more than a couple Kickstarter campaigns crash into the side of the mountain for lack of interest.
I agonized over funding goal choices. The trick with Kickstarter, of course, is that if you don’t meet your minimum goal, you get zero donations. And if you do meet your minimum, Kickstarter still takes a cut from your total. I’m not saying you’re screwed either way; I’m saying that it’s an established system with clear rules. So on the one hand, keeping your financial expectations low can better ensure that you receive your donations; on the other hand, everything I read about Kickstarter said that you should aim for what you need rather than what you expect to get because funding is stronger as long as there is still a goal to reach. I decided on a two-prong approach: establish a minimum goal that would cover a majority of costs, then create unofficial Flex Goals that outlined what expenses other higher levels of funding would cover. Kickstarter doesn’t have a system for Flex Goals, but it’s a pretty common practice now. And as long as what you’re doing is clear to your audience, I think it works well.

What was it like in the interim period of seeing money coming in but not yet achieving the initial goal? Did you ever think, Shit! This was a bad idea!
It’s strange asking people for money, let alone friends and acquaintances. It feels very narcissistic, very egocentric, as if I’m asking for a quantifiable example of what our relationship means. This is partly why Kickstarter was my backup plan rather than first choice. And while there’s a system in which donors receive rewards, it remains an awkward exchange. I decided to embrace that awkwardness rather than avoid it. As long as people don’t feel like they’re being swindled in some way, and as long as you are clear in what their contributions are supporting, they generally understand the situation and don’t take offense to the fact that you’re asking them. Moreover, there’s also a sense of significant connection between you and your donors—you have an immense amount of appreciation, gratitude, and respect for anyone willing to support you, friends and strangers alike. They become part of the conversation of your work. They’re more than just investors. They’re direct influences. I like to think of it as a hive, a hive that is open to any and all pollen-bringers. The more pollen contributed to the hive, the more dynamic the honey becomes, and the more dynamic the honey, the better the contributors eat. After I launched the campaign, there was never a specific point where “The Sound of Silence” started to play in the background and I suddenly thought, I’ve made a huge mistake, because, well, it was too late to do anything about it.

You eventually got to just over nine thousand bucks, just a few bills shy of your highest goal of ten grand… how did that feel, to know that with the help of a hundred something backers, you were going to have the chance to make this thing happen?
It still feels ridiculously blissful! Like I don’t know how it really happened. I know my highest Flex Goal was $10,000, but that was, well, a dream goal, the kind of thing I only thought I’d reach if some anonymous venture capitalist made a mistake in his investing, hit the wrong button, and somehow funneled his daily earnings into my campaign. I still cannot believe I reached $9,000. I am so utterly thankful to everyone who donated or shared the campaign with others or even simply supported it in thought. I wish I could personally fly to every contributor’s house, thank him to his face, and deliver his reward by hand—but I’d probably have to run another Kickstarter campaign just to cover those trips. Thank you doesn’t even feel like enough of a thing to say. I need a new expression. There’s probably a German word for “the thank you that means more than thank you and that also expresses how much you want to build a giant bottlecap shrine to their generosity.”

Do you feel pressure, now that you’ve gone and come back, to make this book a reality? Any more than you would have if you hadn’t crowdsourced your funding?
There’s pressure present no matter what. But I don’t feel it externally from the crowdsourcing aspect. It’s all my own pressures. I am writing this book because it demands to be written by me, but I can only hope others will enjoy and draw something from it, as well. Many people have told me, “I cannot wait to read your novel when it’s finished!” and all I can respond with is: “I can’t, either.”

Any advice for the kids out there who might be endeavoring to try something like this out?
I had the fortunate opportunity to watch and learn from a friend’s Kickstarter campaign months before I launched my own. He taught me so much about the process. The most important, most comprehensive lesson I learned was to plan, plan, plan. Give yourself two months to research, organize, create, and finalize a campaign before you ever consider launching it. It’s an amazing amount of work that requires multiple levels of attention to detail. And you should include a video. Admittedly, shooting a video was painful, but only because I hate the sound of my own voice, let alone watching myself over and over on film. But a video is so important to a successful campaign. And I’m very glad I shot one because it forced me to articulate, in a short, immediate, and enthusiastic way, why this project was important to me and what I hoped to accomplish thanks to everyone’s contributions.

How cold was it, really?
If you jumped into the ocean water, you had roughly four minutes to climb out before your body started to shut down and go hypothermic. No one ever fell overboard, but plenty of us jumped in willingly before quickly scrambling out. It’s the coldest water I’ve ever been in. Compared to that, the air was refreshingly brisk.

EDMUND SANDOVAL lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in The Minnesota Review, The Common, Fourteen Hills, and The Mud Season Review, among others. He earned his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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