About two months ago, my pal and fellow writer Walter Kirn asked if I had any short stories, which might be suitable for a new online digital publisher called Byliner. I knew of the company, because I had bought a piece by Jon Krakauer called "Three Cups of Deceit," which I devoured in one sitting. Walter, you should know, is a writer whose work and literary tastes I truly admire. He had become the Byliner fiction editor, who was helping launch Byliner's fiction department with several original stories. He added that Byliner specialized in long pieces, 10,000 words or more. I laughed. I had nothing new or old I would want published, let alone anything that long. Walter was undeterred. He brought up the idea repeatedly.
And then I had an idea. I had recently run across a photo of a family member, my grandmother's cousin, who appeared to be wearing courtesan clothes. Like many young girls of the period, she might have been wearing the trendy clothes that courtesans made all the rage. Whether she was a courtesan, my curiosity was piqued. I fell headlong into that world and my imagination of the life my distant relative might have had. What was their daily routine? What did a new courtesan need to know? I did some research and the rest was imagination that spilled into 14,000 words, a primer on how to be a successful courtesan and avoid cheapskates, false love, and suicide. I had never written a story that long and, surprisingly, I loved the freedom of not worrying about word count. Few magazines would publish a story of that length.
Although I now had a story of suitable length for Byliner, I developed cold feet. It would be the first fiction of mine published in six years. Mind you, I had not been staring at a blank screen all that time. I had been occupied raising money for an opera and writing libretto for it, as well as doing research in the mountains of Guizhou for a novel, and also writing an article for National Geographic. I went back and forth over whether this new story should be published. I imagined ridicule, humiliation, all the fears I've always had as a writer when it comes to publishing. I'm sure it drove Walter crazy. But he acted very patient as he went back and forth about why the story should be published. He is a very persuasive fellow, also encouraging, and gently wrestled it out of my sweaty little hands, then served as the editor on the piece. It was a difficult process only because we had to conduct it over Skype with a 15-hour time zone difference, he being in Montana, and me being in Beijing. On one occasion, he called me at 3 a.m. his time.
So now there is a story called "Rules for Virgins." It takes place in Shanghai in 1912, when my grandmother's cousin was a young woman in Shanghai. It concerns a fourteen-year-old virgin courtesan who is mentored by a seasoned one, Magic Gourd, now over the hill at age thirty-three, who has a no-nonsense attitude, modeled after my mother's. If you take out the nature of these women's profession, the actual advice is more like the marketing strategies of any business, and in this story's case, humorous ones having to do with the vulnerability of men's egos. That makes it an age-old story, I think. Look at our politicians today. Those were the kinds of clients who went to courtesan houses of yesteryear--rich, successul, powerful men of privilege--lured by the illusions of romance and their desire to bed a first-class courtesan, no matter what the cost. The story is darkly humorous and ultimately heartbreaking, as were the lives of many of the real courtesans at the end of their careers.
Some of my friends have already suggested that some of my research must have come from 20 year of experience serving as the rhythm dominatrix in The Rock Bottom Remainders. They said that I likely enjoyed writing the story as much as I did whipping the butts of Dave Barry, Scott Turow, and Stephen King as they pleaded for mercy ("more, more"). This is absolutely untrue. I perform in that seedy role solely to raise money for charity. And they bend over for the same reason.
Okay, here's what the courtesans would have said to market this story:
The story is sold on Amazon as a Kindle Single, as well as on Google, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks.
Caveat emptor: It is a single story, albeit, a long one, 42 pages, but it is not a novel. I saw readers had complained about other Kindle Singles because they thought they were getting a whole novel and not a single story. (Come on, a new novel by Stephen King for $2.99?)
Additional caveat emptor: This not a tender mother-daughter tale. It is "not suitable for children due to mature subject, explicit sex, and adult language." If I could get Herman Cain and DSK to denounce it, it would be great for sales.
Happy advice: A number of friends asked if they could buy it in a paper format because they don't have a Kindle or iPad. Alas, it is not available in any format, except digital. But, happily, you don't need a Kindle to download. You can read it on any computer or device that can do downloads. Simply go to the website for Amazon or Google or Barnes and Noble, then download the free software for their eReader format. On an iPhone or iPad, just download the Kindle or iBooks app. Either one works.
If you do buy it, thanks. It's good to be back.
Causes Amy Tan Supports
Self Help for the Elderly
Squaw Valley Community of Writers
San Francisco Symphony
San Francisco Opera