Archive for September, 2010

George Witte of Saint Martin’s Press Talks About the Work of an Editor

September 25, 2010

George Witte is editor-in-chief of St. Martin’s Press, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers. He has worked at St. Martin’s since 1984.  Over the years, George has acquired and edited books by notable literary novelists including Fred Chappell, Robert Clark, Claire Davis, Eric Kraft, Janet Peery, and Gregory David Roberts;  thriller writers P. T. Deutermann and David Poyer; and a wide range of nonfiction authors including Ray Anderson, Francis Bok, Jason Elliot, P. M. Forni, Emmanuel Jal, Stephen P. Kiernan, David Kirby, Irshad Manji, Bill Reynolds, Mitt Romney, Matthew Scully, Gerry Spence, and Charles Sykes.

George is also an award winning poet whose poems have been published in (to name a few): The AtlanticThe Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Southwest Review, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. His most recent collection of poetry is: Deniability: Poems published by Orchises Press in 2009; his first book, The Apparitioners, was published in 2005, and also is available from Orchises.

Andy: George, thanks for coming to the blog today. I’d like to talk about how you make acquisition decisions. I’d just like to add that this blog has done some entries on publisher rejection. Most recently we composed: Publisher Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler. Let’s hope that St. Martins would publish the former and reject the latter.

 Andy: Can you tell us some of the books you have been working on lately? Maybe one by one, tell us what they are, why you are excited about them and what did you consider when you made the decision to acquire them?

George:  This spring and summer I have continued to work on the publication of David Kirby’s Animal Factory, a book on factory farms and their enormous environmental impact, which becomes more relevant each day.  (Last week’s massive egg recall is just one example.)  Kirby is a terrific investigative reporter and writes with a sense of narrative urgency; he knows how to organize complex information and science into a story about people, and he has a nose for important subjects.

 

Andy: That sounds like a very interesting book. One of my clients is Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, who writes about animal rights and animal emotions.  I’ll make sure he reads that book. What other book do you find exciting right now?

 

 George: Another recent book is Stephen P. Kiernan’s Authentic Patriotism, which seeks to reclaim the word “patriotism” from the current “us vs. them” climate of hysteria, and defines it as many of the founding fathers did: as service by citizens to country.  Stephen is a dynamic writer and speaker who inspires everyone he meets, and this book portrays a wide range of Americans who are doing remarkable, wide-ranging things that improve the lives of people in need…with no political agenda.

Andy: How many book proposals do you look at in a typical week? How do you sort through them?

George:  I read 20-40 proposals and manuscripts each week, most of the proposals for nonfiction books, most of the manuscripts fiction.  Nearly every project is represented by an agent, and the proposals are structured in roughly the same way: a descriptive overview of the book, a chapter outline (often with substantive text), at least one sample chapter, an assessment of competitive and/or similar books on the subject, and information about the author’s credentials.  All these proposals reach a level of professionalism, and all are “publishable.”

Andy: So what are the things in the proposal that really grab your attention?

 George: When I’m reading, I’m really listening…for a voice, a sense of urgency, a passion for the subject that excites me even if I have no previous knowledge of or interest in the subject at hand.  Yes, other things are important: how many books on this subject have been published recently, how have they sold, and how is this proposed book different?  Does the author have a “platform,” which can mean anything from he/she is a journalist who has published widely on the subject, or is an academic writing for a general audience, or is an expert for some other reason, or has contacts with individuals, groups, organizations, and media that can help the publisher sell, market, and publicize the book.  But the key thing is the author’s voice, which no amount of proposal-laundering and packaging can supply.  The best books have a distinctive sound and it’s audible from the very first encounter.

Andy: It sounds to me that you have pretty wide ranging interests. Do you have any special areas that might fit into the publishing program or are you just looking for good books that excite you and (hopefully) your readers?

George:  St. Martin’s publishes all kinds of books for all kinds of readers.  Different people want different things from books—some want pure entertainment, some want information about a specific subject that is important to them, some want to learn about a completely new subject, some want to be deeply moved, some want to change their lives and hope a book will show the way.  We read a wide range of books and look for those that seem the best for their intended audience.  These days, I’m looking for investigative journalism, current affairs/issues, a certain kind of memoir (usually those that connect with larger social questions), and narrative nonfiction.  I am not publishing as much fiction as I once did, but am open to a special literary novel. 

Andy:  But even if you fall in love with a project, it doesn’t mean it will get published. Where is the final decision made and who makes it?

George:  Final decisions are made at our weekly editorial meetings, with our two publishers having the last word.   

Andy: Could you tell us a little more about how you work with books after the book gets acquired?

George:  After acquisition, I’m in touch with the author along the way to delivery of the manuscript.  Some authors like to submit sample chapters or sections, others prefer to finish the book and begin editing then.  I work closely on editing—line to line as well as structural—and usually go through two drafts with the author before we have a final manuscript.   Then I circulate the manuscript to the people in house who will have a hand in its publication: art, sales, marketing, publicity, subsidiary rights, and others.  After it’s typeset, I seek out advance quotes to help support the efforts of the sales, marketing, and publicity departments, and I work with each department to provide information that will be useful in their respective efforts.   I attend a range of meetings to discuss these efforts and follow up with each department.  I work with the author throughout the publication and usually for at least three or four months after publication date, or longer if needed, to keep reaching out for readers. 

Andy: George, we are always hearing that editors don’t edit any more. It sounds to me that you are still of the old school.

By the way, I’m the agent for a lead title at St. Martins in the spring. It is called The Jersey Sting. Most people remember the unforgettable picture of the Hassidic rabbis in handcuffs. The book is about the biggest corruption scandal in New Jersey history (and that’s saying a lot.) The authors are journalists with The New Jersey Star Ledger and were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of this story.

Meredith Maran On Her New Book: My Lie: A True Story of False Memory

September 16, 2010

Meredith Maran’s new book, My Lie: A True Story of False Memory, has just been released by Jossey-Bass/Wiley publishers.  Meredith’s book is a memoir of her own  experience with the false memory  of parental sexual abuse and its devastating impact on her family. But it is also an exploration  of the phenomenon as an example of mass hysteria.  There is going to be a whole lot of heat generated by My Lie. Meredith is with us here today to talk about the book.

Andy:  Meredith, it is unimaginable to me how you could write a book about a subject that must still give you such a sense of shame,  even to think about.  Why did you decide to write  this and what were your feelings as you were writing it?

Meredith: Actually, ‘shame’ isn’t the word I’d use. Regret, sorrow, remorse, yes. But the reason I decided to write My Lie is the same reason I can’t feel shame for the false accusation I made—which is to say, my wrongdoing took place within the context of an epidemic of wrongdoing. That doesn’t diminish my personal responsibility, but it does help me understand how and why I became one of untold thousands of women like me who falsely accused their fathers of molesting them during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I began writing the book in 2007, after I found out that a friend of mine had gone through the same experience I had. I started to check around, and discovered that many friends and therapists who’d been living on “Planet Incest,” as I call it, had since renounced their allegiance to the notion of incest as the primary source of our personal and political problems. At that same time, the Obama/McCain campaign, with all of its attendant Big Lies, made me feel that the issue of mass belief of lies continues to be prevalent –and dangerous.

Andy:  When reading My Lie, it struck me how easy it would have been to fall into defensiveness, self-pity, or righteous indignation. You avoided all of these pitfalls, which made it a much more moving and compelling story.  Did you ever get  the temptation  to allow these kinds of feelings to highjack the story?

Meredith: I’m glad to hear you feel that way, Andy. I knew that if I was to write this book I had to find a way to make myself a believable, if not a likeable, narrator—despite the title and the “plot” of the book. Of course it’s impossible for me to tell how successful I was!

I must say, self-pity didn’t really come up for me. It was much more difficult to grapple with my feelings of defensiveness. I’ve been an activist since I was a young teenager, and I’m a great believer in the balance of personal and political responsibility. But in this case, I felt I had to carefully examine that balance within myself. Would I have made my accusation absent the epidemic of accusations? Probably not. Am I still responsible for having made such a terrible mistake, with such terrible consequences? Absolutely.

Andy: We all like to believe that we are morally autonomous individuals and are strong enough to withstand the seductions (excuse the expression) of mass hysteria. Most of the people who will be reading  My Lie no doubt think of themselves as rational, humane, and compassionate.  But your book seems to be making the very unsettling point that all of us, no matter how moral or enlightened we believe we are, can become possessed  by the darker regions of our hearts. It made me question whether this book was just about the phenomenon of false memory or whether it touches on something more fundamental in the experience of being human.

Meredith: Wow—I love that question, and I love your observation. Can you get Terry Gross to ask me that question?

It was profoundly unsettling to think that a person like me—rebellious, iconoclastic, smart, and a journalist to boot—could be sucked into such a morass of delusion. In fact, it was my politics that made it possible. Sexual abuse became a metaphor for the oppression of females in the 1950s culture that I and my friends grew up in. We loved having a one-word explanation, a diagnosis for our own pain and for women’s pain in general.

The most unsettling experience of all was when I saw the “Birthers” and “tea party” members with their red faces and unwavering convictions that Obama was born outside the U.S., is a practicing Muslim, that health care reform would create death panels that would murder grandmothers—and my friends were saying, “How can they believe that bullshit,” and I was thinking, “I believed bullshit like that.”

Andy:  Some people come out looking pretty bad in My Lie. Particularly feminists who were too uncritical in embracing what you call “Planet Incest.” But your opprobrium seems to be most focused on the licensed psychotherapists, who were the real “brain washers” and used their credentials to give credence and authority to what in the end were little better than witch hunts? Has this poisoned you to therapy? Can you give some advice to people who are seeking it?

Meredith: Since I was one of the “feminists who were too uncritical in embracing what I call “Planet Incest,” I start with myself in criticizing that group of people. I also tried to make clear in the book that although we made huge, costly mistakes and committed great excesses, it’s also true that before this episode, incest was a deep, dark secret. When my own children were trained in elementary school to protect themselves from child molesters, it literally came home to me that great progress was made as well.

As for therapy, yes, I feel pretty thoroughly poisoned. I quit in 1997 after many, many years and the only thing I regret about that is not having quit sooner. That said, when people I care about tell me how great therapy is for them, I believe them, and I support them in whatever works for them—as long as they don’t ask me to join them, or pay for it.

Andy:  Has the theory of recovered memory been totally discredited or is it still accepted in some circles?

It’s definitely still accepted, and promoted, by some experts. One is Jennifer Freyd, the daughter of the founders of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, who accused her father of sexual abuse, and then became a brain scientist whose research focuses on memory. Her book, Betrayal Trauma, makes a very good case for the existence of recovered memory.

Andy: As you can tell from my questions, this book really made me think about basic questions of human nature. At the end of it, I felt a kind of Conrad-ian pessimism. But your book ended on a pretty optimistic note. You seemed to believe in the power  — almost the  grace, really – of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Meredith: Again, I thank you, Andy, for your insight. You’re right—realizing my mistake, and writing about it, was humbling to say the least. There were days when I really wondered how my family has been able to forgive me.

On the upside, being humble beats the hell out of my previous world view, which contained a lot more arrogance and righteousness than I’m entitled to in the aftermath of writing the book. And my relationship with my father and stepmother are excellent now, so that’s a living reminder of the power of (sorry, but it’s true!) love and forgiveness. I’ve tried it both ways—anger and blame; reconciliation and empathy—and I’d rather live the rest of my life in this state of grace.

Andy: I think this was a very courageous book, and I hope it will find a wide readership.

A full listing of Meredith’s appearances, and more information about her work, can be found at her website:

http://www.meredithmaran.com/index.htm

Linda Watanabe McFerrin Talks about Zombies

September 6, 2010

Linda Watanabe McFerrin is an award-winning novelist, short fiction writer, travel journalist, writing teacher, and all around literary guru.  Her first novel, Namako: Sea Cucumber, was published by Coffee House Press in 1998 and was awarded a Best Book for the Teenage from the New York City Libraries.

Linda’s newest novel, Dead Love, published by Stone Bridge Press, is being released this week. It is a novel about zombies centered in Japan. It begins when Clément, a lovesick ghoul, falls for the beautiful Erin. What follows is a breathless story that moves from Tokyo to Haiti to Amsterdam to Malaysia. Along the way you will encounter Yakuza (Japanese gangsters), Haitian witch doctors, ballet dancers and assorted horrible characters.  There is even a little zombie sex mixed into this pot. Yuch! 

 You can buy Dead Love in paperback, e-book, or a special limited hardback edition that includes a manga treatment of one of the chapters.

Linda will be making a number of appearances around the Bay Area.

 Andy: Linda, congratulations on the publication of Dead Love. I want to talk about zombies today. When we first began speaking about this book (full disclosure: I’m the literary  agent who represents Linda), you made the striking comment that you believed zombies really exist. Well, excuuuse meeee!! But I don’t believe I have encountered many zombies at Cody’s over the years or even in your literary salon, Left Coast Writers. How can you defend this astonishing claim? Could you tell us a little bit about the science of zombies and how one can identify them.

Linda: Thanks, Andy. Right. Dead Love was actually inspired years ago when I read a book by noted ethno-botanist, Wade Davis, who also happens to be one of my literary and travel heroes. Davis’ book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, was about his search in Haiti for a kind of zombie formula—the substances that bokors, the Vodoun shamans or witchdoctors, have been using for generations to drug their victims into a death-like stupor. This is actually a crime in Haiti, and I have an old newspaper clipping about a man who was sentenced to prison for the crime of zombification. Zora Neale Hurston famously wrote about zombies in Tell My Horse. There are photographs of the unfortunate creature in her book. Because my novel is truly bizarre fiction grounded in fact, I include the truth about zombies in the first chapter of the book, and I footnote many of the ultra-weird things that are fact-based. They are essentially much stranger than fiction, and that is a big part of the point of Dead Love: that what’s real is often extremely surreal.

Andy: When I see the deals coming down for new titles, I notice that there are a lot of people writing in the zombie genre. Why do you think they have become so popular?

Linda: I actually think the zombie craze is part of a larger attraction that has taken literature and other art forms by storm, and that is a fascination with the supernatural. Perhaps this fascination has something to do with the absence of myth in our supposedly reality-based lives. Myth and magic are manifestations of the unconscious and its odd connection to the numinous in the everyday world. I think zombies are, in some ways, symbolic of a state of mind. We all feel a little like a zombie from time to time. We succumb. This is not an enviable position, which is probably why we want to kill zombies. They are that loathsome (and for some, very lovable) part of ourselves.

Andy: I know when I’m acting like a zombie, Leslie doesn’t find it particularly loveable. But let’s go on.  What about zombie spin-offs of the great classics? Pride and Prejudice For Zombies was one of the best-selling books in many years. Can you think of some other classics that would be good grist for the zombie mill?

Linda: Oh, Wuthering Heights is just begging to be repurposed for zombie fans. I also feel Brave New World would be wonderful with zombies in it, though it kind of has them already, don’t you think? Actually a lot of Shakespeare’s plays, Titus Andronicus for example, would be super if the characters were zombies. And what if Romeo and Juliet had a happy undead ending in which the star-crossed lovers rise again as zombies? Come to think of it, dig up almost any of the great old works of literature and I believe you’d find them suitable for reanimation with a zombie twist.

Andy:  Yes, Linda. I think it would be simply splendid to have Don Quixote tilting at zombies instead of windmills.  There seem to be a lot of zombies and vampires in books for young adults. Why do you think teens are so attracted to these creepy characters? Are teen girls looking for different things than teen boys?

Linda: Kids have always loved fantasy. We all do. That’s why fairytales have endured. These are the new fairytales. And even in those old stories collected by the Brothers Grimm there were witches and evil trolls and devilishly deadly folk. And there was a lot of gore. At root, I don’t think the lust for gore is gender based, but I do think it goes well with a little romance and possibly some humor.

Andy: Dead Love isn’t really a teen book though is it? Do you think teens are going to read it though?

Linda: No, it isn’t a teen book. It’s full of sex, death, and dismemberment. But it’s an easy read (wasn’t it Ernest Hemingway or Nathaniel Hawthorne who said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing”?) and a darkly poetic one. It’s also quite cinematic, so I think teens are going to be drawn to it. They always ferret out what’s best in literature. If they’re lucky, they can pull marvelously inappropriate books from their parents’ bookshelves. I remember grabbing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas from my mother’s bookcase.

In Dead Love, the young Erin carts around her mother’s books on ghouls; so there you have it. In fact, a few teens have already gotten their hands on the novel. One of them said, “So usually when I read 300 page books it takes a little while. This one was different … every page seemed to just fly by (not like it was unmemorable) but because it was really good.”

Andy: Maybe I’m just a sicko, but I really enjoyed the zombie sex in this book. Can you give us a few tips and techniques to have better sex with zombies?

Linda: Andy, please remember that Erin is only part-zombie, which accounts for the amazing sex … kind of the best of both worlds. If you are talking about most zombies, well, let’s just say that there is generally quite a bit of slobbering involved, as well as considerable sucking and biting, which might not be so bad, depending on your proclivities. However, I should warn that eventually all of this leads to chewing and you need to be careful about your partner’s parts falling off. That’s never a good thing.

Andy: Linda, I’m getting really turned on by  all this. So I better end this interview before things get out of hand.


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