Archive for September, 2009

Thinking About Cody’s

September 27, 2009

I suppose it is time to say something about Cody’s. I haven’t said very much about it, except to my wife, Leslie. And it seems to make her uneasy when I do.

Cody’s closed its doors on June 20, 2008. I wasn’t there that day. I hadn’t been working there since December of the previous year. I had sold Cody’s to Hiroshi Kagawa of Tokyo in 2006. Hiroshi was head of  Yohan, Inc. It was the largest distributor of English language books in Japan. We wouldn’t have been able to stay open otherwise. We had run out of money. Anyway, I liked Hiroshi. And he made a pretty good stab at  putting Cody’s back on its feet again.

I kept running the store for another year. But financial concerns crept back  to plague the company. The store was unraveling. And I just couldn’t put it back together again. So I left  and with relief. I didn’t know exactly what I would do next. Given my experience of being a bookseller my whole adult life, I believed my future lay in something like sacking groceries at Safeway.

One night in January, I woke up and realized that I might be good  literary agent. You know, try my hand at the other end of the publishing food chain. I jumped into it. I managed not to think of how audacious that decision was and how little I knew about what I intended to do. It’s hard starting out again when you are 60. Particularly if you had done the same work at the same company for 30 years.  I know a lot more now, and I think I might even be good at this job. I certainly enjoy doing it every day. I only wish I had started my agency sooner. And I still have a lot to learn. I’m very grateful to the other agents who have been so generous with their time and wisdom.

About the time Cody’s closed, Alex Beckstead began showing his documentary: Paperback Dreams  .   The movie was  aired last fall in multiple national markets on PBS television.  Alex spent 2 years filming Paperback Dreams. It was about the struggles of Cody’s and Kepler’s to stay alive in hard times. He wasn’t expecting to document the demise of my store. But that was exactly what he did. It was hard for me to watch this movie. Alex kept dragging me out to public showings. Once I cried. Then I stopped going. I felt that the movie managed to document every mistake I made for several years. Leslie told me that I was being hard on myself and  that no one else saw it that way. Alex agreed. But it didn’t make it easier to watch the movie.

Even though I wasn’t working at the store when Cody’s closed, I really went into a tail spin after it happened. I developed classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The weirdest thing that happened is that I began to feel like the last 30 years of my life didn’t really happen. It wasn’t quite amnesia. It was more like it had been a dream. No, actually,  more like a dream of a dream.

I found  that when I drove to Berkeley, I always tried to avoid  going up Telegraph Avenue. And to this day, I can’t go to Union Square.

But recently, I have found that I’m okay  thinking  about all those years again. After all, here I am writing about it.  There were a lot of things that caused the store to close. Things that probably had very little to do with me.  But more than that, I’m starting to realize that we did some pretty good things over the years. And I have a lot to be proud of. And so does everyone who worked there.

People stop me on the street all the time and tell me how much Cody’s meant to them and how important it was in their lives or even how it changed their lives. That makes me feel pretty good.

When Cody’s closed its doors for the last time, they put up a sign that said: “Cody’s is closed. Thank you”. It wasn’t a very eloquent farewell. But to be fair to the folks who worked there, I doubt there was much  time to think about being eloquent. These closings are usually pretty messy affairs.

I wanted to say something though. I wanted to say what Cody’s really meant to me and  what it meant to so many other people. I wanted to summarize 50 years in just a few words. So I wrote this:

On June 20 Cody’s Books  closed its doors forever. People will argue the causes of Cody’s closing. But I have no doubts on this matter. Cody’s was the victim of history.


But it is less significant how one dies than how one lives. In this respect, Cody’s acquitted itself with honor and dignity.  At the end of the day,  when the record is written; it will be remembered that Cody’s added immeasurably to the life of the mind; that it  profoundly enriched people’s lives; that it gave back more than it took; and that it was obedient to its own ideals.


The doors close. The lights go out. The steadfast and courageous employees move on to new lives. Other book  stores will come to serve Cody’s customers. But there will always be a place in our hearts for Cody’s. And it will  serve as an inspiration for those who seek a better world.


Good bye, Cody’s and good night. You have earned your rest.


Copy Editing at The New Yorker with Mary Norris

September 20, 2009

mary norris new small (1 of 1)Mary Norris started working at The New Yorker  thirty-one years ago, in the editorial library, moving on to the collating department and the copy desk. Since 1993, she has been a page O.K.’er, or query proofreader.  She has written for The Talk of the Town and contributes to the New Yorker books blog.  She is working on a memoir about having a transsexual sibling, the legendary Baby Dee.  You can read Mary’s fabulously entertaining blog : “The Alternate Side Parking Reader.”

 By the way, if you want to learn more about copy editing from those who are the best in the business,  check out: The New Yorker Festival (October 16-18). This year  there is  a master class in copy editing, on Sunday, October 18th, at 2 P.M., with Ann Goldstein, the head of the copy department; Elizabeth Pearson-Griffiths; and Mary Norris. A program guide to the festival is in the issue of September 21, 2009, and online.

I want to talk to Mary about what really goes on at America’s most prestigious literary magazine.
 Andy: Mary, I understand that you often write  some extremely well-received books under the pseudonym: “Malcolm Gladwell.” Is this true?
Mary: Hah! Are you trying to get me in trouble?  Malcolm Gladwell is an incredible phenomenon. He is not a made-up composite of a writer but a real person, and though he must be a millionaire by now, amazingly, he continues to write.
Andy: Can you describe for us what a typical day is for you at The New Yorker?
Mary: The hours at The New Yorker are from ten to six, and I try to be on time, as it is embarrassing to be chronically late when you don’t have to be at the office till ten. We have a weekly schedule for closing the contents of an issue in an orderly fashion: fiction closes early in the week, critics at midweek, and the longer, more demanding pieces near the end of the week; Talk of the Town and Comment go to press last, on Friday. The head of the copy department, Ann Goldstein, parcels out the week’s tasks, matching up who is available with what needs to be done. If the lineup changes, we readjust.
There are four full-time O.K.’ers, as well as a team of about six proofreaders, some of whom act as O.K.’ers when we need them. Basically, on the day a piece closes, you read it, and give the editor your query proof, which will also contain the queries of a second proofreader, and after the editor has entered all the acceptable changes and sent the new version to the Makeup Department, you read that new version. There will sometimes be a “closing meeting,” when the editor, the writer, the fact checker, and the O.K.’er sit down together over the page proof and discuss final changes. The O.K.’er then copies these changes onto a pristine proof called the Reader’s (to keep the paper trail) and enters them into the electronic file, and sends the revised piece back to Makeup. The next version is read against the Reader’s proof by another layer of proofreaders, the night foundry readers. The system is full of redundancy and safety nets.
 Andy: Wow! That is even more proofreading than I do on this blog.  You do copy editing there. What is a copy editor? How is it different from a line editor?
Mary: The job descriptions at The New Yorker are different from those at book publishing houses and other magazines. We have a copy desk, and the job of the copy editor is to do the first pass on a piece, when the manuscript is “set up,” that is, set in type for general distribution. At this stage, the copy editor makes minimal changes, in spelling and punctuation, to conform to New Yorker style. You may have noticed that we spell “theatre” the British way, reversing the “er” to “re,” and double consonants before suffixes (“travelled,” rather than “traveled”); we use the diaeresis in words like “coöperate” and “reëlect”; we prefer the serial comma; we spell out round numbers, even big ones. The copy editor does not make any interpretive changes.
Next (and you won’t find this job anyplace else) a piece is “Goulded.” This used to be the domain of the legendary Eleanor Gould Packard, a grammarian and a genius whose old office I now occupy, though I am neither a grammarian nor a genius (except for real estate: the office has a great view). One of the query proofreaders, on a day when she is not O.K.’ing a piece, reads the galleys of a piece that is scheduled for a future issue, fixing spelling and punctuation, of course, but also making more subtle suggestions.  Query proofreaders at The New Yorker are probably more like line editors at other publications. We go over the piece twice. We fix danglers. We try to improve the sentences, making sure that the author is saying what he or she intends to say. Eleanor Gould was big on clarity, and I have absorbed some of that. Basically, you’re giving the piece a really close reading.
When a piece is scheduled to run in the magazine, we read it again, twice. As I said above, in addition to the O.K.’er, each piece has a second reader, to back up the O.K.’er. The O.K.’er then has the duty of reading the piece yet again, to make sure no mistakes have been introduced, and also to smooth things out. Sometimes a fact checker’s language does not blend in with the writer’s voice, although the checkers work closely with the writers. Any material added by the writer or the checker has to be copy-edited. This takes as long as it takes, and we don’t rush out at 6 P.M.
Andy: I have always heard that The New Yorker had extremely rigorous standards for copy editing and fact checking.  (Or perhaps I should say: “cöpy ёditing”)  Can you talk about that? How is your job copy editing different from, say, that of a copy editor at the National Enquirer?
Mary: I don’t know what it’s like to be a copy editor at the  National Enquirer. The main thing here is to respect the writer. The writers don’t have to do everything we want them to—we make suggestions. The ideal would be to give an editor a proof and have all your suggestions meet with approval. Sometimes you notice that your suggestions have not been taken, so if something bothers you, you try again. Sometimes you wear them down, sometimes you cave.
I have been on both sides of the process, as a writer and as a query proofreader. Being edited sometimes felt like having my bones reset on a torture rack. I don’t ever want to do that to a writer, but I probably have from time to time. “What is this, the adverb police?” a writer who shall remain nameless once said in my earshot. “You betcha,” I wanted to say. I don’t remove every word ending in “ly,” but I like economy and concision.  
  Andy: The New Yorker has such an iconic status in the literary world. When Vicky Raab quoted me in the New Yorker blog, I went around for weeks telling my friends I had become a “New Yorker writer.”  Does the office reflect this kind of exalted status? Or is the workplace like everywhere else? You know, people complaining about the bad plumbing, that sort of thing.
Mary: Bad plumbing! How did you know? There is someone who trashes the ladies’ room regularly, and we can’t figure out who it is.
When you have worked at a place for a while, it is bound to lose its mystique. But as someone who has occasionally been published in The New Yorker, I cannot deny that it is always a thrill to have a piece accepted. You belong to the same tradition as some great, great writers. And although sometimes you are just churning your way through the week, other times you’re getting paid to read something great. We are probably all in this business because we like to read, right? So what could be better?
 Andy: I have always imagined that most of the real workers at the magazine, the guys who don’t do the featured stories, are writers in their other lives. Probably pretty good writers. Is that true? Is TNY a good gig for a writer? Connections and all that stuff? Entrée to parties at the Hamptons?
Mary: You’re right there. Many of the people on the editorial staff have the will to write: they’re poets, essayists, novelists, playwrights,  journalists. I have a novel in my bottom drawer, if you’d like to take a look at it. I guess what we have is access: I can e-mail the editor-in-chief, or talk to an editor if I have an idea. But, obviously, the staff writers are given preference, and you are competing with them just like anyone else. Sometimes people leave The New Yorker to take writing jobs elsewhere.
I have never been invited to a party in the Hamptons, but maybe I’m just not working the connections assiduously enough. One of the perks is grabbing books off the book bench—review copies that get sent to the magazine (there’s no way we can review all the books that get sent here). Recently I asked Roger Angell to sign a copy of his 2008 Christmas poem for my second cousin Dennis Kucinich (rhymes with “spinach”), whom I met at a family reunion. Another perk is getting to hobnob with the cartoonists. When a copy of the magazine lands on my desk on Monday morning, the first thing I do is still to flip through it looking at the cartoons.
 Andy: You have worked under William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, Tina Brown, and David Remnick. Do you have a sense that there was a “golden age” of TNY or are we living in it now?
Mary: Hmmm. Sometimes when I have occasion to look back at an issue from the Shawn days, I am moved by the beauty of those vintage magazines: the lines of type were fitted character by character, the hot type is very alive, the black-and-white columns of print have a classic purity. Bob Gottlieb was careful to maintain that, though he introduced some changes. Tina Brown brought in color and photography, and shortened the length of pieces (and probably the attention span of the general reader). I think that what David Remnick has done is bring his newsman’s nose to the job. Remnick has succeeded in making The New Yorker a vital part of the national conversation. We seem to have found our voice after 9/11.
On the other hand, you find fewer quirky pieces that may not be particularly newsworthy but that readers love. For instance, “Uncle Tungsten,” by Oliver Sacks. (I still regret making him spell “sulfur” our way, with the “f,” when he wanted to spell it the old-fashioned British way, “sulphur,” which he’d grown up with.) Ian Frazier’s two-part piece on his travels in Siberia is a good recent example of a beautiful, funny, interesting, old-fashioned piece of writing. A good writer can make you care about anything.
Andy: Is your job satisfying?
Mary: The thing I like most about my job is that it draws on my entire background. I know a little Italian and Greek that sometimes come in handy. I once caught a mistake in Middle English (in a piece by Andrew Porter yet)—the only time my graduate degree has ever had a practical use. I know the name of the airport in Cleveland, and that can be useful when you’re reading a piece of fiction by a Southern writer who is making things up about northern Ohio. It’s redemptive to have a practical use for the arcana of Roman Catholicism.  
  Andy: What qualities make a person a good candidate for copy editing?
 Mary: Self-doubt. It’s always good, before changing something, to stop and wonder if this is a mistake or if the writer did this for a reason. When you’ve read a piece five or more times, it is tempting to believe that it must be perfect, but you have to stay alert for anything you might have missed. Eternal vigilance! It also helps to have read widely (and well), and to have noticed, while you’re at it, how words are spelled. Of course you have to be attentive to details—you have to be a bit of a nitpicker yet be constructive in your nit-picking. You have to love language. And not be too proud to run spell-check.

 Andy: I hope this isn’t too naughty to ask, but can you tell me the three  biggest style errors that you have gotten from New Yorker writers?

 Mary:   When I first got into the copy-editing game, I wondered why writers persisted in the error of their ways when they must have seen the changes that the editors made. Finally I figured out that it isn’t the writers’ job to style their own copy. For writers, having to think about those things is constricting. Plus, if they did, it would put us out of a job.

 But here are a few things that have irked or puzzled me.

  1. There was a writer who spelled “annihilate” with just one “n.” And he used it in every other sentence. This was back in the days before word processors, when I was in the collating department and had to prepare handwritten Reader’s proofs for the printer. I must have written the word “annihilate” four hundred times. The writer never did notice that it had two “n”s.
  2. One stubborn editor refused to believe that “arrhythmia” was spelled with two “r”s. This doesn’t come up often,  but it is odd to have someone simply refuse to spell a word right because he thinks it looks funny. It’s almost admirable.
  3. The difference between “lie” and “lay” in the past tense continues to confound. It is “lie, lay, lain” (intransitive verb, meaning “to recline”) and “lay, laid, laid” (transitive verb, meaning “to set [something] down”). “Laid” is so often used incorrectly as the past tense of “lie” (as in “She laid down for a nap” [ding, ding, ding: wrong!]) that people are afraid to use it even when it’s right, so you’ll get a sentence like “She lay the stones on the grave.” It doesn’t set off so many bells, but it’s a mistake, in this case attributable to overcorrectness.

  Andy: Mary, this has been fascinating. You expand this into a 50,000 word piece, and I can sell it to Knopf.

Final note: After completing this interview, I sent the text to Mary. She sent it back, hurling me into copy edit hell. I spent 3 hours correcting her edits that included caps to  lower case, lower case to caps, spaces between periods and colons, assorted italics and the list goes on.  This exercise was a powerful lesson, in itself, in the work of a copy editor. I’m exhausted from the experience.

How Ramparts Changed the Way We Write about Politics

September 12, 2009


This month New Press released A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America.


richardson The author, Peter Richardson, teaches California culture at San Francisco State University and is chair of the California Studies Association. I have worked with Peter in his capacity as editorial director at PoliPointPress in Marin. They are a superb publisher of books on politics and current affairs.  While New York publishers seem to be going down the primrose path of celebrity publishing, PoliPoint is doing some pretty good books of substance. (Some of them are mine, thank you very much.)

 Peter will be making numerous appearances in the Bay Area in September, including a Berkeley Arts and Letters event  on September 24 with Robert Sheer. Look at Peter’s blog for a complete list of appearances.

 A Bomb in Every Issue (great title) is a history of the flamboyant, dramatic, brilliant, and short life of Ramparts magazine. It was perhaps the most successful attempt to bring New Left ideas to the general population.

 I’d like to ask Peter some questions about why Ramparts was important then and how it has had a lasting impact on political writing.

 Peter, for all those young whippersnappers reading this blog who don’t remember the joys of living in a free love commune and reading Ramparts in the sixties, can you tell us just a little bit about the magazine and why it was so colorful but also so important?

 Ramparts was launched as a Catholic literary quarterly in 1962 but very quickly morphed into a “radical slick,” really the first of its kind.  The magazine moved from Menlo Park to San Francisco, where its office was perched between bohemian North Beach and the media and advertising district down the hill.  That location was fitting, I suppose, because Ramparts straddled both worlds. 

 When the magazine first got liftoff, Warren Hinckle was the editor, and he supplied the showmanship.  Art director Dugald Stermer added the visual fireworks, and Robert Scheer made waves with big whistleblower stories, including one about  CIA activity in Vietnam.  Later, founding publisher Edward Keating recruited Eldridge Cleaver—even arranging for his release from San Quentin—and Ramparts helped make the Black Panthers internationally recognized icons.

 Ramparts was important primarily because it proved that mainstream media techniques—including lively writing, sophisticated design, and more than a dash of sensationalism—could be used to advance progressive politics.  The magazine’s production values distinguished it from its stodgier East Coast counterparts and its grittier underground ones.  So in a very direct way, Ramparts opened the door to magazines like Mother Jones and Rolling Stone, both of which were founded by Ramparts alumni. 

 How did they differ from the other left-wing periodicals of the time? Life I.F. Stone’s Weekly, or even the political articles in the New York Review of Books?

 Stone was a hero to the much younger staffers at Ramparts.  In fact, they ran his work frequently and employed three of his relatives.  But mostly Stone stayed in DC and debunked official nonsense.  Ramparts became a magnet for whistleblowers of all stripes, and the youth of its staffers and their Bay Area location gave them the inside track on the counterculture.  The New York Review of Books was more intellectual, less sensational, and not so focused on blockbuster stories. 

 I can’t imagine, for example, Hunter Thompson partying with Izzy Stone or the editors of TNYRB.  Who knows, maybe that happened.  But Thompson enjoyed cavorting with Hinckle and called Ramparts the crossroads of his world in San Francisco. Later, Hinckle matched Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman and helped create Gonzo journalism.  Jann Wenner, who worked on the Ramparts spinoff newspaper, eventually recruited Thompson and published his most notable work in Rolling Stone.

 But what really distinguished Ramparts from other publications was its ability to compel bigger news organizations, especially the New York Times, to pick up its stories. All told, the Times covered about a half dozen Ramparts stories on its front page: for example, when Ramparts revealed that the CIA was secretly funding the National Student Association. And during the late sixties and early seventies, Time magazine ran about ten stories about Ramparts, mostly to disparage it.  But all those stories did was raise Ramparts’ profile.  

 Ramparts had some pretty good investigative journalism, not just the garden-variety radical ranting, isn’t that right? Some of it had profound historical importance. Can you tell us a little about that?

Right, they didn’t fall back on opinion pieces and leftist formulations—Marxese, as editor David Horowitz called it later.  Instead, they broke big stories that read like detective fiction. 

 The first big investigative story was an April 1966 piece about CIA activity in Vietnam.  Strangely, Robert Scheer came upon the key documents not in Vietnam, but in Berkeley’s Doe Library.  It turns out the CIA was secretly training police, writing a new constitution, and torturing Vietnamese, all under the auspices of a Michigan State University program.  Eventually, that story—and the CIA’s subsequent decision to illegally investigate Ramparts and its personnel—led to the first congressional investigations and oversight of the CIA and FBI.  The Senate committee was led by Frank Church, one of Keating’s undergraduate friends at Stanford. 

 Another good example of that historical importance you mention is the way a Ramparts story affected Martin Luther King.  While eating lunch in an airport, Dr. King came upon a photo-essay called “The Children of Vietnam,” which documented the effects of U.S. bombing on Vietnamese children.  King’s advisors had been telling him to stay out of foreign policy, but he decided on the spot to come out against the war.  He was criticized in the mainstream press, but he knew he had to do it, and he later said the Ramparts piece was the key to that decision.

 Another Ramparts story shows how the magazine went beyond the conventions of traditional journalism.  When Eldridge Cleaver became a contributing editor, he accompanied the Black Panthers to Sacramento, where they walked onto the floor of the state assembly, armed to the teeth, to protest a new gun control law. Cleaver was arrested along with the Panthers, but he was released because he wasn’t armed and because he was covering the event for Ramparts.  The media frenzy that followed turned the Panthers into celebrities, and Cleaver became the party’s minister of information. 

 So yes, Ramparts was far from typical.  Toward the end of its life, it did fewer big stories, but it was still more interesting than most political coverage now—which is largely a matter of journalists relaying what their official sources said, or pundits bullshitting about what they read in the paper that morning.         

 What was really new about Ramparts journalism? At PoliPoint, you publish mostly progressive political books. Can you tell us how all of these books have been impacted by what Ramparts did?

 The main innovation was Ramparts’ ability to reach broad audiences by imitating Time magazine’s methods.  That drove Time crazy.  And Ramparts took full advantage of the mainstream media’s inadequacies.  When I asked Warren Hinckle why Ramparts was so successful, he said, “Probably because the rest of the press was so shitty.”

 The link to PoliPointPress, I guess, is that we’re always looking for important stories that bigger publishers, for whatever reason, won’t touch.  One of our biggest books, Phil Longman’s Best Care Anywhere, points out that VA hospitals are beating the pants off of for-profit healthcare providers.  That’s very counterintuitive, and instructive for our current healthcare debate.  I wouldn’t call them whistleblower stories, but two of our books are first-person accounts of working in comically dysfunctional institutions: cable news television (Jeff Cohen’s Cable News Confidential) and educational testing (Todd Farley’s Making the Grades).

 Our other books take on big issues, too.  Dean Baker (Plunder and Blunder) goes after Wall Street and the federal policymakers who were supposed to regulate it.  Sarah Posner’s book, God’s Profits, looks at the links between mega-church preachers and Republican efforts to mobilize their flocks.  Looking ahead, we just signed a book on medical marijuana.  It won’t be a drug policy or law enforcement story; it will be a business and political story, with special emphasis on the way “cannabusiness” is making money and buying political support, just as Indian casinos did not too long ago. Maybe if Ramparts were still around, it would be telling these stories.  

 And still, Ramparts sort of imploded after only a few years. Was it just a matter of the left-wing infantile disorders of the time? Were they a victim of the same forces that brought down the New Left?

 Yep, those problems were part of it.  Ramparts editor Peter Collier, who ran the magazine with David Horowitz after they ousted Scheer, described that period as one of “elemental cell division” on the left. 

 But there were at least two other problems, too.  Ramparts always relied on rich funders, first the Keatings and then Fred Mitchell, a Berkeley grad student who inherited a good deal of money.  Many people don’t realize that political magazines, left and right, almost always lose money.  As Adam Hochshild told me, advertisers want to sell skis and cars and jewelry, not outrage or ideas.  Ramparts declared bankruptcy for the first time in 1969, when circulation was at its peak.  It reorganized and continued on a smaller scale until 1975, when it folded for good. 

 The second problem was Ramparts’ shrinking niche in the media ecology.  Once Ramparts showed that muckraking could work, bigger outlets got involved.  60 Minutes launched in 1968, for example, the year after Ramparts won the Polk Award.  And many new magazines sprang up, like Rolling Stone and New Times, some of which were created at least partly in Ramparts’ image.  That made it tougher to survive.  

 OK, Peter, you’re an editor who’s always looking for important political books. Can you give all those aspiring political writers out there some advice about writing? What should they learn from the story of Ramparts?

 It’s not really related to Ramparts, but most projects I see don’t articulate their unique contributions to the discussions they want to join.  That’s the first question: What are you saying that hasn’t been said before?  That means knowing what the other books say, and that means homework.

 Turning to Ramparts, I think its story has at least three lessons for political writers today.  First, be prepared to make your own party.  In 1962, the Bay Area didn’t have an important national media presence.  If young Bay Area writers wanted opportunities to practice big-time journalism, they had to create a vehicle for that.  In the book, I compare that development to a more recent one, when Daily Kos rose to national prominence a few years ago by challenging the Iraq War and the political and media establishment that supported it.  With the advent of the Internet, there are many more opportunities to write, even if that means starting your own blog and trying to make something happen.  Acquiring editors want to see not only that you have something to say, but also that you can locate and connect with your audiences. 

 Second, I once heard Joe Conason, another PoliPointPress author, tell a younger writer, “You have to pick a fight.”  Ramparts picked a fight, and so did Daily Kos.  (Happily, the fight Daily Kos picked with PoliPointPress is behind us, and we’re working with them on a big project right now.)  Conflict is an important part of any story, fiction or nonfiction, so picking a suitable adversary and clarifying the stakes of that conflict is very important.  A good example is Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater

 Finally, Ramparts took on big issues, but during its heyday it was deeply irreverent and funny.  Bestselling books on politics often have large doses of humor.  Think Al Franken, or the late Molly Ivins, or Michael Moore.  They’ve moved a lot of books because it’s not just information, which is cheap now.  You don’t have to be a comedian, but if readers think they’ll get a little amusement along with the information, that helps a lot.  I may not be riveted by details of the educational testing business, but Todd Farley’s personal stories about that racket give me a lot of information in a very entertaining way.  That made a big difference to me when I was evaluating that manuscript. 

 Thanks, Andy, for the chance to talk about Ramparts and the book.  By the way, I have a great idea for my next book.  All I need now is an agent.  Hmm….

Mary Mackey on Writing Historical Fiction

September 7, 2009

MACKEY WIDOW (1 of 1)MACKEY AUTHOR PIC (1 of 1)Mary Mackey   is the author of a new historical novel, The Widow’s War,  just published in paperback by Berkley Books (a division of Penguin). It is the story of a woman’s life and struggles set against the backdrop of the approaching Civil War. As in many of Mary’s other sweeping historical epics, it portrays a strong and courageous woman caught up in historic times.

Maxine Hong Kingston said of The Widow’s War: “We thrill to the story of Carrie Vinton, as she courageously takes the side of freedom over slavery.”

MACKEY NOTORIOUS (1 of 1)Mary has been a professor of English and Creative Writing at California State University for over 30 years. She has published 12 novels and 5 books of poetry. Her works have been translated into 11 foreign languages including Japanese, Hebrew,  Greek, and Finnish. Her best selling novel, A Grand Passion,  sold over a million copies and made The New York Times bestseller list.

Mary will be reading and discussing The Widow’s War on Friday, September 11, at 7:00 PM at Book Passage Corte Madera, California.

Andy: Mary, I want to talk to you today about writing historical fiction. It is a genre that I love to read and that you, it seems, love to write. But first I’d like you to tell me a little bit about your new book, The Widow’s War, which has just been published by  Berkley Books.

 Mary:  Well, we might start with the fact that Carrie Vinton, the heroine, is a widow because she’s just shot her husband.

 Andy: Wow. That starts things off with a bang. I presume she had good reason, yes?

Mary: A whole list of good reasons. This is a novel about the first African-Americans to fight in the Civil War. They’re a fictional cavalry unit, but they could have existed. The story that surrounds them is filled with Afro-Brazilian magic, heroism, history, and a passionate love affair that borders on obsession. But it also explores the subject of betrayal: personal betrayal, political betrayal, and, of course, sexual betrayal.

 The heroine, Carrie Vinton, is an American who was raised in the jungles of Brazil by her father, a botanist. Carrie is passionately opposed to slavery.  In the fall of 1853,  Carrie finds herself alone and pregnant in Rio de Janeiro after William, her abolitionist fiancé, disappears. William’s stepbrother, Deacon Presgrove, arrives in Rio, tells her William  is dead, and convinces her to marry him for her baby’s sake.

 After they return to the states, Carrie finds out she’s been tricked: Deacon is a fortune-hunter who’s married her for her money and William is still alive. From that point on, the novel is one series of betrayals after another. Believing that Carrie is dead, William has emigrated to Kansas where he is running slaves out of the slave state of Missouri on the Underground Railroad. Carrie goes to Kansas to search for William. This isn’t the Kansas Dorothy went back to after she returned from OZ. This is a Kansas convulsed by a violent civil war that raged for seven years before the official Civil War broke out. Two years earlier, in 1854,  President Pierce had signed a law which gave the residents of the Territory the right to vote to determine whether or not Kansas would come into the Union as a free state or a slave state. Almost immediately fierce fighting broke out in the Territory as proslavers flocked over the border to vote and abolitionists, mostly from New England, emigrated to Kansas to bring the state into the Union as a free state.

 William and Carrie are reunited but their happiness is short-lived. Attacking Carrie’s home, proslavers kidnap William, Carrie’s newborn child, and thirteen fugitive slaves. Desperate to fight for what she believes in, to get her child back safely, to prevent innocent people from being sold back into slavery, and to be reunited with the man she loves, Carrie arms a cavalry unit of African-American soldiers and leads them on a rescue mission into the slave state of Missouri. These soldiers have been trained by John Brown, the same John Brown who attacked Harper’s Ferry in 1849. Brown believed armed insurrection was the only way to end slavery and he was very active in Kansas at the time.

 I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so I’ll leave you with William with a noose around his neck and Carrie riding into Missouri to try to save him.

 Andy: Can you be bribed to tell us if she makes it in time?

 Mary: Afraid not.

 Andy: Okay, then, the next question: This is your second book that takes place in  the time of  the Civil War. Your first was: The Notorious Mrs. Winston .[ picture of book.  ]  What caused you to become interested in this historical period?

 Mary: My great-grandfathers fought on opposite sides during the Civil War. One died for the Union at Shiloh; the other was a Confederate Army surgeon. I grew up hearing both points of view, and by the time I was twelve, I had decided that slavery was a great evil, and that if I had been alive in that period, I would have been a abolitionist.  Of course, I’m not the only person interested in the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of people are still drawn to the subject. It was one of the great turning points in American history, and many of the issues it raised are still with us—racism, for example.  You can’t understand American in the 21st Century  if you don’t know what happened when this country was almost ripped apart in the mid-19th century. In the 1850’s  slave owners came very close to controlling Congress. If Kansas had come into the Union as a slave state, all the western states, including California, might have become slave states. The North might not have won The Civil War; we might be two countries instead of one.  You might say we escaped by the skin of our teeth.

 Also, as a novelist, I’m always trying to create a plot that’s exciting—one that sweeps the reader along. There are few periods more exciting than the years just before and during the Civil War.

 Andy: It seems to me that historical fiction as a genre has an enduring attraction. I have always loved it because it seems to  focus on the heroic virtues (and vices) of humans. In the best works, I always come away being uplifted by these kind of epic themes. What is it about the genre that allows you to –well- get away with these kinds of portrayals. After all, most contemporary literary fiction seems to dwell on more intimate and private subjects.

 Mary:  I love writing historical fiction  because it allows me to set my stories in times when people face serous adversity.  I think you really get to know a character—or a real person for that matter—by the choices they make under stress. When the going gets tough, does the person endure or fold;  show compassion or shove the children aside, jump in the lifeboats, and save him or herself at the expense of everyone else? 

 At present in the industrialized world,  most people have few opportunities to show how heroic (or how deeply wicked) they are. We live sheltered lives. If we drink the water that comes out of our faucets, we aren’t likely to die of typhoid; most women survive childbirth; the majority of babies don’t die in infancy; our homes are warm in winter; most of us have never really gone hungry, and although we may deplore the violence in our cities, an army is not likely to attack the town we live in, burn the buildings, and massacre all the men and boys (which is what actually happened in Lawrence, Kansas in 1863). 

 Writing historical fiction gives me wide-ranging, exciting possibilities that allow my characters to be heroic or foolish on a grand scale with important consequences. I have an opportunity to examine the point where personal life and history intersect. Tolstoy does this masterfully in War and Peace. Dickens does it in A Tale of Two Cities. I learned from them that historical fiction can also be literary fiction.

 Andy: So now here is the big question. What is the greatest historical novel ever written?  Or let me rephrase that. What is the greatest historical novel ever written other than  War and Peace?

 Mary:  I’d say Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past),  all seven volumes of it. It’s not usually classified as historical fiction, but it covers the first decades of the French Third Republic and fin de siècle. Published between 1913 and 1927, it has a timeline that begins in the early 1870’s. Proust is one of my mentors. He’s influenced the way I think about psychology and style. He taught me that concrete detail and well-developed, complex, vivid characters can recapture the past and make it come alive.

 My next favorite piece of historical fiction is Mary Renault’s novel The Persian Boy.  I’ve read it several times and each time I go back to it, I’m impressed by how beautifully Renault integrates the history of Alexander The Great’s conquest of Persia with the intimately personal, first-person narrative of Alexander’s lover, the eunuch Bagoas.  Like Proust, Renault has strongly influenced my writing, particularly my pre-history novels The Year the Horses Came, The Horses At the Gate, and The Fires of Spring.  

 Andy: Lately, when I have tried to sell publishers any book, fiction or non, publishers seem obsessed about the books not being too long. It seems that the internet has created a generation of readers with ADD. But historical fiction seems to be able to get away with more words. I see 800, 1000, 1400 page historical novels. Got any thoughts why this is so?

 Mary: I suspect readers are willing to buy and read long historical novels because historical novels are offering them a history populated by human beings who love and suffer in ways that haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. Also,  I think many people (myself included) like to learn history in an enjoyable, painless way. Reading primary, or even secondary, historical documents can be a complex, difficult, boring process. I do it all the time, and even though I’m a trained academic researcher, I often find myself exhausted as I try to sort through events and make sense of them. Good historical fiction spares the reader this process. Ideally, the author tells a good story and in the process of reading that story, you learn a lot of history, but you learn it without having to spend two or three years consulting hundreds of books and articles.  Better yet, you remember it. Once I read The Persian Boy, I never forgot that Alexander The Great made it all the way to India in his attempt to conqueror the world.

 Andy: When I saw the movie  Zorro 2, there was a scene that took place when California was admitted to the Union  in 1850. The scene included Abraham Lincoln and a Confederate general. So my question is when the historical record clashes with telling a good yarn, who wins out?

 Mary: History, at least in my novels. I think my readers rely on me to be accurate. That said,  I’m writing fiction, which means that, among other things, I’m inserting fictional characters into real history, so sometimes I rely on possibility rather than on the exact record. For example, in The Widow’s War, I have a fictional pro-slavery senator  named Bennett Presgrove help a South Carolina Congressman nearly beat an abolitionist senator nearly to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The beating is a real, historical fact—one that shocked me when I discovered it– but in real life, the South Carolina Congressman conducted his infamy solo. At the end of the novel, I have an Author’s Note. In it, I tell the reader what’s fact and what’s fiction. I would never consider putting Abraham Lincoln next to a Confederate general in 1850. If I were reading a novel that did this, the entire illusion of being transported back to another era would be ruined for me. Even small mistakes in the historical record bother me. For example, I’ve read novels set in prehistoric Europe where people sit around drinking tea.

 On the other hand, some novels intentionally set out to distort history or change history. For example, there is a whole genre of science fiction alternate history novels that take as their subjects things like the South winning the Civil War or Hitler dying as an infant. As long as the author tells you at the beginning that this is the game plan, I don’t mind. Fiction is just that: fiction. The joy of fiction is that you can do anything you want with it as long as you are honest with your readers.

 Andy: I know you have been writing about the Civil War period now. But have also written about Czarist Russia and European pre-history. Are there any other  historical periods that you find really appealing?

 Mary: My doctoral dissertation was on the influence of the Darwinian Revolution on the 19th century novel, which is why the 19th century always attracts me, but I’m also particularly interested in ancient Rome, Britain as the Roman empire was crumbling, the Middle Ages in general, 17th century France, and Latin American just before and during the Spanish and Portuguese conquest. I read about these eras constantly, although I don’t know if I will ever set a novel in them.

 Andy: So what is it with the God damned Tudors? It’s like one novel after another about Elizabeth, Henry, Mary Scots, that stupid rogue Essex, the Boleyn girls. Is there really anything new to say about these people? Why do they seem to have such an enduring  fascination?

 Mary: I think some of the appeal is celebrity gossip. “OMG! Henry the VIII beheaded 2 of his wives!” Plus the women wear really beautiful clothes and are very rich and live in palaces while the rest of us are trying to pay the mortgage. I have nothing against these novels. They provide entertainment and escape, and in the best cases they bring history to people who would never read it otherwise. Some are very well-written and well-researched. I particularly enjoy the work of Philippa Gregory. I think the problem with the Tudors is that they are being mined to death. It’s like the Jane Austen craze. Jane Austen is a great writer, but you can only take so many rewrites of Pride and Prejudice. I’m reminded of great songs that are played until you can’t stand them. At this very moment, someone who has never heard it before is listening to Stairway To Heaven and being blown away by it. But when I hear it for the 6,000th time, all I want is earplugs. It’s the same with the Tudors.

 Andy: Ok Mary. I want to write an historical novel. I’m thinking of doing a kind of mystery. Maybe Sherlock Holmes teams up with Otto Von Bismarck. Maybe a murder in the Hapsburg court. A lot of scenes with generals in cool outfits doing the waltz. Is this a good idea. What periods of time do you see really working right now for a successful novel?

 mary: Right now I’m hoping that the Civil War period is the best for a successful novel. Seriously, Andy, if you’re planning to write a historical novel, you should start by finding a period you love and set your story in it. If waltzing generals in cool outfits make you happier than Roman emperors in togas, go for the waltzing generals.

 Historical Novels that Mary recommends you read:

Mary Mackey suggests you read all of Andy’s suggestions (below) plus:

 Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

The Year The Horses Came by Mary Mackey

The Widow’s War by Mary Mackey

Ten Historical Novels that Andy recommends you read.

Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears

The Dream of Cicero by Iain Pears

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

The Three Musketeers s by Alexander Dumas

Saints and Villains by Denise Giardino

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Lincoln by Gore Vidal

The Notorious Mrs. Winston by Mary Mackey

The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque