Peg Tittle is a prolific author, and not just in one genre either. She has published everything from creative fiction to articles in journals and magazines to textbooks. She’s even done some stand-up comedy! She has a definite style when it comes to her books and stories and it is one I quite enjoy reading, even if I don’t always find myself agreeing with her viewpoint. As you will see from the following conversation, Ms. Tittle is a fascinating, multi-faceted individual.
Miramichi Reader: Thanks for agreeing to an interview, Peg. Its been long overdue. To begin, please tell us a little about your background, education, employment, etc.
I’m one of the many philosophers working in the Ministry of Ethics, making sure that all legislation and policy … Hah. But isn’t it telling that we DON’T hire philosophers? In the private OR the public sector? People who are trained to think about ethics, sound argument, etc.?
Re my background, read This is what happens.* It was ordinary, in a parents-should-need-licenses way.
Re my education, I have degrees in Literature, Education, and Philosophy, and diplomas in Music (piano, composition) and Dance (tap, jazz).
Re my employment, read This Will Not Look Good on My Resume. I’ve supported myself with a patchwork of part-time and fill-in positions. I’ve always wanted time and freedom more than money, so why work full-time? That said, I’ve been fortunate in that my part-time jobs usually paid enough to make twenty hours a week enough. Then again, I’ve kept my expenses low; for example, I didn’t make any new human beings I’d have to support. (I didn’t make any old human beings either in case you’re wondering.)
*This just in! “An incisive reflection on how social forces constrain women’s lives. … Great for fans of Sylvia Plath, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook.“ Booklife/Publishers’ Weekly
MR: Tell us about some of the books or authors or other people (such as teachers) that may have influenced you to become a writer.
I’m not sure anyone influenced me to become a writer. For most of my life, I didn’t have anyone to talk to about stuff that mattered so I had conversations with myself. My high school and university notebooks … the margins are crammed with notes … comments, ideas, questions, answers, more questions … And all that just turned into writing, I guess.
I sometimes wonder whether I’d’ve become a writer if I hadn’t been such a loner. Perhaps my writing is an upside to being a female-bodied brainy person. (I remember walking into the room in high school to join the debate team … only two boys were there, and they both stopped talking as soon as I entered. I felt like such an intruder, I turned around and left. End of story. Except that it repeated itself in university with the Philosophy Club.) Perhaps that’s the case with a lot of (especially female) writers.
That said, Mr. Schmalz, my grade 11 creative writing teacher, had us keep a journal, writing one page a day. That was a devastatingly brilliant idea. For me, at least. I kept that up for decades. And it wasn’t a diary in a Proust way; it was a notebook of … comments, ideas, questions, answers ….
And Mr. Feeney chose, as the gift for getting the highest marks in grade 13 English, two collections by Canadian female poets, Susan McMaster and Gwendolyn McEwen. So that too was influential, showing me what I could become.
Oh, and Mr. Boldt for having put “Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle” on the list of topics for our grade 12 History essay assignment. I chose it, signed out our school library’s entire collection of philosophy books (there were eleven, I think) and spent the whole weekend down in the boathouse (my middle-class parents had a cottage for a few years), in which I’d found a table, cleared it, put the books and a pile of blank paper on it, gotten a pen (actually, no, I always had a pen on me), and a chair (didn’t always have that with me)— it was an epiphany. Because I realized then and there that that was all I wanted to do: sit, staring out at the water, reading, writing, and thinking. My dream of living in a cabin on a lake in a forest (and doing just that) came true at thirty, when I’d finally saved enough for the down payment on such a place in mid-northern Ontario.
BIG THANK YOU to all three of them.
MR: Incredible, and insightful. Do you have a favourite book, one that you like to revisit from time to time?
No. I kinda wish I did, but I don’t remember most of the books I read once I’ve finished reading them. And it’s not because they’re not good. And I don’t think it’s because I read so many (about three a week: one fiction, one sf, one nonfiction). It’s just … I don’t know. They’ve surely had an influence on me, made me what I am, but I can’t put my finger on any one book, except for a very few: The Handmaid’s Tale, which I once taught in a high school English course (I was declared redundant after my first year of teaching just part-time, so from that point on, I had to scramble for night school and summer school courses, this was back in the late 80s) before I realized I couldn’t … it wasn’t on the approved list (I didn’t know there was an approved list) (and, by implication, a not-approved list); Naomi Klein’s This changes everything; Gwynne Dyer’s War. These three are not by any means my favourites; they’re just the ones that, for some idiosyncratic reason, I remember. I’m now reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, and it is stunning (in both senses of the word). (I also read and now remember as excellent and important his Science in the Capital trilogy.)
MR: The first book I read of yours was What Happened to Tom and you had my attention from then on. How would you describe your style of writing?
Well, they say that philosophers shouldn’t write fiction, and perhaps they’re right. I’m not a storyteller; what happens doesn’t matter much. (Recently, I changed my mind about entering one of my novels in a competition, because I couldn’t really write a synopsis. What happens? Well, not much, really. What Happened to Tom and Exile are exceptions.) And I really don’t care about what a room looks like or what a person is wearing. So, not heavy on plot or setting or characterization. What matters to me is what’s said. So I guess my work is dialogue-driven.* But in the sense of what’s said about ideas, not what’s said that reveals character. One reviewer described it as journalistic. That feels right. (Weird, because journalists typically report what happens. I guess it feels right in that my writing isn’t embellished very much; it’s relatively sparse …) At least, this is with regard to Peg Tittle’s fiction. See next question …
*So I thought I’d be good at writing screenplays, because really, they’re just dialogue. In fact, you’re not supposed to write anything else, not even to indicate how the words are spoken. And, in fact, both What Happened to Tom and Exile started as screenplays. And since they both placed in minor competitions, I actually went to the L.A. Pitchfest to pitch them to agents and producers, and one such person said that I should ‘reverse engineer’ them, rewrite them as novels, and then the novels would get optioned for screenplays … Very bizarre advice, I thought, but hey. So I re/wrote them both as novels, and much to my surprise and delight, both of them got published. By real publishers. (Up to that point, except for a small collection of poetry, Paintings and Sculptures, which was published by a small press in Australia and immediately forgotten, I suspect, I was publishing my work myself after it got rejected by hundreds of agents and publishers.)
MR: Eventually I encountered Jass Richards, your literary double. Describe how Peg and Jass differ or how they might be two sides of the same coin.
Actually, when I started writing, in my late teens and early twenties, I wrote as Chris Wind (see chriswind.net; see also chriswind.com … I was a composer as well). My stuff was heavily autobiographical and I wanted to protect the privacy of the people I wrote about, and I didn’t want to be dismissed because I was a woman (‘Chris’ could be ‘Christopher’ or ‘Christine’) (this was in the 70s when consciousness of this sort of thing picked up a lot of speed, leading quite quickly to the use of first initial instead of the full name … unfortunately because only women did that — thanks a lot, men, for your ‘support’ — it didn’t achieve its goal of masking one’s sex). (Also, in my case, I didn’t consider that most people would assume ‘Christine’ because, well, I guess it’s inconceivable that a man would wonder what the women of the Bible, Shakespeare, fairy tales, and myths would say about their situation … which is what Satellites Out of Orbit, my first book-length work is all about.) Regardless, Chris Wind’s stuff is on the literary side: poetry, short stories, theatrical monologues …
Much to my dismay, although I did get published in many journals and magazines, I didn’t get published in book form. I think this was partly because I didn’t write a novel (I tried — Fugue turned into This is what happens forty years later, but it’s not a conventional novel) (Satellites is a collection of the aforementioned poetry, stories, monologues) and partly because I held off on submitting to feminist publishers for a long time (because I didn’t think feminist stuff should be marginalized) (now I realize that that’s really the only option) (and by the time I realized that most of the feminist publishers had gone under or had been hijacked) (‘feminist’ today means something quite different from what it meant up to the 70s). In my mid-thirties, after my prose was repeatedly criticized as being too pedantic and I was told by one editor that I had to make up my mind, was I writing essays or stories or poems (my pieces were kind of all three — and I’m convinced that had I been a man, I would have been praised for innovation), I decided that if I had to choose, making a point was more important than telling a story, so I started writing short popular philosophy pieces (now called ‘think pieces’) and tried to get a column in a newspaper or magazine, like Thomas Hurka (he had an ethics column in one of the big Toronto newspapers). Well, that didn’t work out, but I eventually published those pieces — see my Shit that Pisses Me Off series, later published as one collection titled Just Think about It, and Sexist Shit that Pisses Me Off, and Just Think About It. That was all as Peg Tittle (pegtittle.com). Style-wise, semi-academic, but in-your-face … ? My tag line is ‘Philosophy with attitude. Because the unexamined life is dangerous.’
Then, in my forties, during my midnight shifts at the juvenile detention center, I had access to cable tv and started watching a lot of stand-up comedy, and when I went to Montreal to get my M.A. in Philosophy, I tried to become a stand-up comedian. I discovered that I had little acting ability (after the first few performances, your stuff isn’t funny to you anymore, so you have to pretend, you have to act …), and I didn’t want to develop that ability, but I loved writing my material. Jass Richards (jassrichards.com) was born. And my style there is to some extent influenced by stand-up, so there’s a rhythm, often a punch line of sorts … My tag line here is ‘Laugh and think at the same time.’ (Think George Carlin and Monty Python.) (Which is why I was delighted to be compared to both by various reviewers!)
All three of us, though, write what I’d call ‘stuff that matters’ —it’s not just entertainment.
MR: Peg, you also wrote a textbook on Critical Thinking, which is amazing. Tell us about it and other non-fiction titles you’ve written.
Yeah, that’s a little bizarre. Even more bizarre was the textbook I wrote before that one. Because that is to say, my first published book (other than the forementioned Paintings and Sculptures) was a business ethics textbook. Business! BUSINESS! That is just so — wrong. I thought I could be the next Atwood, I was writing prose and poetry, literary stuff, stuff that’s as far from business as … well, you get the picture.
What happened was once I had my Master’s degree, the Philosophy Department at Nipissing University agreed to let me teach a few courses as a sessional; basically, it was a one-person department, and the Department Head wasn’t keen on exactly what I was keen on — applied ethics and critical thinking. So when I was at book fair, looking for a text to use for my shiny brand new business ethics course, the guy behind the table at Broadview Press asked what I was looking for and I told him, in detail, and he said something like ‘You sound like you know exactly what you want’ and I was, well, duh, then he suggested I write up a proposal and send it to him. And I’m like, what? Turned out he was the President of the company. (So that’s how shit happens. Success, I mean.)
A few years later, I had a great idea for a little book that became What If? Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy. (I love thought experiments! And as you know, What Happened to Tom was based on perhaps the most famous thought experiment of all, Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “The Violinist”…)
And that was the stepping stone to Critical Thinking: An Appeal to Reason. The publisher of What If? was looking for a CT text because the market was big and getting bigger, and I was, apparently, the right person in the right place at the right time … That said, the frickin’ book took three years to write, and then the publisher just sat on it, saying it wasn’t ready. So I hired a lawyer, got it back, discovered that two huge academic publishers wanted it as is, it was most certainly ready … but despite very good reviews, it didn’t become one of the standard texts for CT courses … I suspect that if it had been written by Peter Tittle, it would have had been adopted by many more professors. (Check out “Folks, It F*cking Sucked—Sexism in Society” and “… like night and day“.) (And it would have gotten more attention from the publisher’s publicity team which wasn’t emphasizing the thing that made it stand out: the 300-page appendix of answers, explanations, and analyses to the in-chapter and end-of-chapter exercises that basically did the instructor’s work for them!) As it was, I ended up being paid $2/hr for those three years.
MR: Recently, you started your own publishing business, Magenta. I assume it is easier to publish your books that way than through a traditional publisher or a hybrid publishing company. Is that why you started it?
Actually, as you see now, it wasn’t recent at all. As I mention above, I’ve been publishing on my own since the 80s. Back when it was a matter of typing the manuscript, then photocopying it, then taping two same pages side-by-side on a sheet of paper turned sideways, then photocopying again double-sided, very carefully, so the back-sides weren’t upside-down, then taking it to a printer … So no, I didn’t do it because it was easier. I did it because despite hundreds of queries, I couldn’t get an agent or a publisher for my stuff.
Then, after forty years (!), I did get published by ‘real’ publishers: Inanna published What Happened to Tom, Rock’s Mills Press published Exile, and Lacuna published A Philosopher, a Psychologist, and an Extraterrestrial Walk into a Chocolate Bar. And I thought, yes. I’ve made it. Yes! After forty years, I’ve finally made it. Especially when Inanna wanted to publish two more Peg Tittle novels, It Wasn’t Enough and Impact, Rock’s Mills Presswanted to read Chris Wind’s This is what happens, and Lacuna wanted to see the next Jass Richards novel, The ReGender App. YES!!
Then Inanna retracted their contracts, Rock’s Mills Press suspended their fiction publishing, and Lacuna closed their fiction department.
So, I found myself back to publishing it all myself. And yes, now, my god, it is so much easier, what with word processing programs and ebooks … even POD (print on demand) companies like Ingram have made it easier. But the publicity part is harder. Because the publishing is easier. Now, it seems, everyone and their dog is a writer, and the key to good publicity is getting noticed, and that’s getting so much harder because there’s so much more out there. Even established publishers now ask about your ‘platform’ when you submit your manuscript. They also ask about your plans for marketing. (I always think that’s their job; isn’t that why keep 90% of the sale price?)
Here’s an offer to everyone who’s read this interview: visit my sites and if there’s anything you’d like (of the stuff I’ve published myself, the Magenta stuff), send me a note, and I’ll send you the epub (or mobi or pdf) as a gift. No limit.
So, truthfully, I think from this point on, I’m not even going to bother sending my stuff to agents and publishers; it takes a couple years for them to reject it, and I don’t think we have that many years left. (And if they’re going to reject it anyway …) I’ve gotten more reviews for Magenta titles than the three publishers mentioned above, mostly, I think, because I give away a lot of ebooks to potential reviewers, on Goodreads and LibraryThing, and so on. Traditional publishers don’t do that because they’re concerned about piracy. As for sales, Inanna sold 300 copies of What Happened to Tom, which I would never have been able to do, but I think I’m matching what the other two presses have done — which is to say, I’m selling up between zero and 25 copies of each of my Magenta titles.) Bottom line is publishers want to make money, and at this point, I’m more interested in being read. And so … here’s an offer to everyone who’s read this interview: visit my sites and if there’s anything you’d like (of the stuff I’ve published myself, the Magenta stuff), send me a note, and I’ll send you the epub (or mobi or pdf) as a gift. No limit.
MR: What are you working on now?
Nothing, really. Partly because I’m so disheartened by everything. Not getting published by ‘real’ publishers after so many years of trying so hard, not selling more than a few copies when I publish my books myself — actually, that doesn’t bother me, no one makes any money as a writer, it’s the not being read that bothers me. No one even knows about my work! (So THANK YOU, James, for this!) I couldn’t even hire a publicist to get my stuff out there, for fricks sake! (One said ‘no’ because I don’t have a platform — wait, wouldn’t I be hiring you to create a platform?) (Another said ‘no’ because she didn’t agree with my view of SlutWalks.) (Another missed not one, but two, scheduled conference calls.) Which adds to that disheartenment …
And partly because I feel like I’ve started repeating myself.
And partly because if we’ve got only ten years left of life as we know it (due to climate change; things are going to get real bad real fast), I’d rather be walking through the forest and kayaking on the lake, and sitting down at the water reading all the good books and listening to all the great music that other people have written!
Thanks, Peg, for a great interview and for a great offer to the readers of this review. I hope will get some positive response, and that you get to enjoy your remaining years as you want.