Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Peter Ginna on the Work of the Book Editor

October 11, 2017

editorsToday we are going to interview book editor Peter Ginna and discuss the role of the editor in the book publication process. Peter is editor and contributor to What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, just published by The University of Chicago Press. The book is an anthology of essays by 27 of the most respected editors in publishing talking about their work from acquisition to publication. Any writer considering publishing with a major press should read this book. Peter has been a book editor for over 30 years. He has worked at Bloomsbury USA, Oxford University Press, Crown Publishers, and Ste. Martin’s Press. Authors he has worked with include James McPherson, David Hackett Fischer, David Oshinsky, Daniel Ellsberg, and Suze Orman. Check out Peter’s blog on writing and publishing: Doctor Syntax.

Andy:  Peter, what I hear from almost every writer who has not yet been published is “editors don’t edit any more”. I’m sure you’ve heard it too.  Is this true? If not, can you speculate on why this attitude is so prevalent?

Peter: Sigh…I’ve been hearing this complaint since I got into publishing in the 1980s. All I can say is that every editor I know spends many, many hours of their nights and wPeter Ginna copyeekends editing—it’s almost impossible to find time do it in the office. As I say in my book, working on manuscripts is still the core and defining function for most of us. I have edited almost every title I’ve published, usually line by line. And if I haven’t, somebody else has. That said, there have always been some editors who didn’t edit much, or even edited badly. And the economic pressures today to get more titles out of fewer editors sometimes means some books don’t get as much attention as they deserve. But it’s pretty frustrating for those of us who wear our #2 pencils down to little stubs on people’s manuscripts when we hear this comment tossed off so casually.

Andy:  I have to tell you that my life as an agent can be frustrating. I get so many rejections from editors. Sometimes my job seems  like my social life in high school.  Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of literary fiction and some literary memoir. Tough genres, I know. But everything I take on is special. And I still get a massive amount of rejections. At the same time, I see things getting published that just aren’t that good. In literary fiction, I see books that are well written and well crafted, but they seem kind of the same. What should I tell my heartbroken and talented client after he gets his 30th rejection?

Peter: “Thirty-first time’s the charm!” Seriously, publishing has always been a subjective, hit-or-miss business. No book is to everybody’s taste, or every editor’s, and sometimes unexceptional work finds its way into print. And anyone who knows publishing history knows that some wonderful and even bestselling books were rejected many times before publication. I would tell authors what I bet you already say: “It only takes one.” One editor who loves what you’re doing and can communicate his passion to the publishing house.

Andy:  Whenever I give presentations before authors’ groups, I try to be brutally honest about the realistic chances of getting published. Let’s talk about your batting averages. When you were an editor at Bloomsbury, how many book proposals did you typically get a week? How many were agented (heavily vetted)? How many were good enough to get published? How many did you publish in a year?

Peter: Whew, that’s a lot of questions. I would guess I got between 15-30 submissions a week; probably 80 percent of those were agented, because I wasn’t fielding total slush submissions (meaning those addressed to “Dear Bloomsbury”). I acquired 15 to 20 new titles a year, out of all of those.

Andy: Hmm. Let’s see. That’s about 1000 proposals a year and you published maybe 15. I’ll try not to take it so personally next time I get a rejection from an editor. And of those titles you published, how many ended up making money?

Peter: Probably around a third or fewer turned a profit for the house in the first few years, though my list was generally oriented toward books that, with luck, would backlist and generate money over the long term.

Andy: Most of the people reading this interview are thinking about how to go about finding an agent. Can you give them some advice? What should they be looking for?

Peter: My feeling is there are two key things a writer should look for in an agent. First, do they truly get my work—do they understand what I’m trying to do and know how to help me realize it? (Some agents, and some editors I’m afraid, try to squeeze a writer or a book into a form or category that they think will be saleable, but that is at odds with what the author is really trying to accomplish.) Second and equally important, do I have the right relationship, the right chemistry, with this agent? Not only do I trust them, which is critical, but is their style of doing business going to mesh with mine? Agents come in all shapes and sizes and personalities—some are very warm and fuzzy, some are cool and clinical. Either one can be highly effective but if you are not comfortable with it, it’s a bad match.

Andy: The one thing I hear that makes me see red is a writer who only wants to have a New York agent. Do they really have an edge? Is there  some kind of alchemical magic that happens at the Publisher’s Lunch?

Peter: I don’t think the agent’s location is important. If you were in New York, I’d enjoy having lunch with you more often, but as an editor it is much more important to me that you a) always had high-quality submissions and never wasted my time and b) were always professional and a straight shooter. Those are the qualities that get an agent’s clients favorable attention from a publisher, not whether the agent is in Manhattan.

Andy: In your book, Jon Karp says the first rule for an editor is “Love it.”  This seems a little squishy soft for all you tough minded guys working for multi-media conglomerates. Is Jon maybe romanticizing his job a little bit?

Peter: Absolutely not, and I was struck by how many of the contributors to What Editors Do make that same point (including me). Publishing any book requires an enormous investment of time and psychic energy by an editor. The process takes months and sometimes years. If you make that kind of commitment to a book you’re not really passionate about, it becomes a total grind and you often end up hating yourself for it. You don’t have to “love” every book the same way—a book on how to restore furniture isn’t the same as a lyrical literary novel. But you have to feel something in your heart or your gut that says this book is a special one of its kind. My own name for that feeling is “the spark. As an editor it’s your job to pass that spark on to others in house, and then out to readers in the outside world.

Andy:  But still, as the cliche goes, book publishing is the marriage of art and commerce. So once you “love it”, you have to take it through the meat grinder. Can you tell us the next steps you go through before the publisher makes the acquisition decision?

Peter: Here’s where I plug my product and note that I go through the whole process in detail in my chapter on acquisitions. The procedures vary considerably from house to house—at a small indie publisher, unsurprisingly, it’s less bureaucratic than at a Big Five corporation. But essentially, you share the material with your colleagues and try to get support for the project, especially from departments like publicity, marketing, sales, and sub rights who will be tasked with selling the thing if you sign it up. And you have to figure out how much money the house should invest in the project, which involves doing a projected profit and loss statement—the infamous P&L.

Andy:  Ok. So let’s talk about the  P&L.  It’s always been a puzzlement to me. Can you describe this? How on earth can you make realistic sales projections on a product that is unique?  Sure, you can do it for a test guide, or Lee Child’s next Reacher novel. But what about a book like, say, Daniel  Ellsberg’s The Doomsday Machine (my client’s book due out this December, and which was acquired for Bloomsbury by you, Peter)?

Peter: Aha, this is the $64,000 question! In some sense what publishers do is reinvent the wheel a hundred times a year, because just as you say, every product is unique. That makes it really hard to project sales figures with any sense of certainty. The best you can do is make educated guesses about what a new title is likely to sell, based on the author’s track record, sales of comparable titles, likely media interest, and possibly the casting of horoscopes or Tarot cards. Plus, of course, people’s response to the manuscript or proposal itself.  Once you have made a sales projection, the P&L is—in theory– simply a straightforward calculation of the revenue generated by those sales, less the costs of royalties, printing, distribution and so on. Each house will have some target for what percentage of profit must be left at the end of the day.

Andy:  It’s always mystified me how you come up with the final number for an advance. The only  thing consistent is that it is usually too low.  Can you describe what goes into the calculation?

Peter:  Well, what the editor wants to offer as an advance is the author’s royalty earnings as generated on the P&L just mentioned—or preferably a lower number that allows the author to earn out even if sales fall short of the projection—as they often do. But note that in referring to the P&L numbers I said “in theory.” Your P&L needs to show X percent profit, whatever advance you are offering. But suppose you are in a competitive situation, bidding against other publishers for a hot book. Very often, you wind up re-projecting your sales figures so that you can still show a profit on the P&L when the advance goes from $50,000 to $250,000 or whatever.

Andy:  And then there is the word that is on everyone’s lips in book publishing: “Platform”. I tell people that platform means one of two things: Either you have an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. I think you made the same point, possibly with less colorful language.  What  is easier to get published: a pretty good book by a guy with great platform or a really good book by a guy without it?

Peter: I’m afraid it will almost always be easier to get the pretty good book published by the guy with a great platform. (However, the really good book may well outsell it in the end.) People love to hate the word “platform,” but it’s just shorthand for an author’s ability to command attention in the marketplace, which publishers have always been keenly aware of, and rightly so. This could mean either the attention of readers who already know the author, or the attention of intermediaries (media, celebrities, scholars, peers in their field, etc) who will in turn alert those readers. So “platform” could be access to Oprah, as you suggest, or a ton of Twitter or Instagram followers, or a syndicated column.

Andy: So what’s your advice to my platform challenged authors?

Peter: I’d say rather than getting hung up on this idea of platform, think of it this way: How do you mobilize the community of interest around you and your subject? What’s going to get people who care about this to spread the word about the book? You should start this mobilizing from the moment you begin work on the book—don’t wait until your book is in galleys to start building relationships and raising your profile. I remember reading a proposal for a biography of Jesse James by a first-time author. He had no major public credentials, but he had managed to get a very strong endorsement of his work from James M. McPherson, a Pulitzer-winning and bestselling historian. I instantly took his proposal seriously. Alas for me, it was bought by Knopf. That author, T.J. Stiles, has now won the Pulitzer Prize himself, twice!

Andy:  I wrote a book on book proposals. (plug) It’s called The Literary Agent’s Guide to Writing a Non-fiction Book Proposal. I tell the reader that a great book proposal is one that anticipates the questions the acquisition editor will be asking. Am I right? How important are book proposals in your acquisition decision?

Peter: Especially in nonfiction, book proposals are critical. No matter how good your platform is, you need a strong proposal that makes clear why your subject will be compelling to readers and what you have to say about it that’s not available elsewhere. You are exactly right that the author should answer the questions the editor is going to ask. And the first question is generally, if crudely, expressed as, “So what?” What am I, the reader, going to come away with if I invest twenty-five or so dollars, and more important, several hours of my time, in reading this book? If you’ve answered that, you’re well on the way to having a good proposal.

Peter, I think those two words “So what?” summarize everything we have been talking about today.  I’m going to tell all my clients that they need to read What Editors Do, before they make the big decision to seek publication.

 

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Joni B. Cole: Write More, Suffer Less

July 27, 2017

Joni Cole AuthorgoodToday we are going to interview Joni B. Cole, author of Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier. It’s a wonderful new book, offering much more than just guidance  on craft. Joni’s wit and enthusiasm really make the book shine, which is likely one good reason Poets & Writers magazine included Good Naked on its list of Best Books for Writers.

Andy: Joni, welcome to Ask the Agent. You just published your second book for writers that reflects on how aspiring authors can write more, write better, and be happier. Happier? Really?  

Joni: I know, it sounds pretty out there—telling writers they can be happier. As if. Especially given the fact that when people think of writers, the image that most often comes to mind is that of the suffering artist, or some misanthropic drunk, or the neurotic weeper emoting amid her stacks of chamomile-tea-stained journals. But while those might be the stereotypes that make writers interesting characters in Made-for-TV movies, they don’t do real-life aspiring authors any favors. And if we buy into them wholesale, we’re likely to overlook all the ways we actually can cultivate a more productive, meaningful and, yes, even happier creative process. Good Naked offers insights and practical tips for doing just that, but it can be a hard sell sometimes.

Andy: What is one of the ways writers sabotage themselves.

Joni: One habit I see ingrained in so many writers is how we trash talk our work incessantly, faulting every draft for its shortcomings rather than valuing its role in the development of the story. This is like faulting a baby for not being an adult. A first draft is just that, a first draft, doing the work of not being a blank page. A fifth draft paves the way for a sixth draft. The penultimate draft reveals those tiny missed opportunities that can elevate our work to its full potential. As working writers, our entire job description is to create drafts. This is where we spend all our time. So if we do not find meaning and merit in the now of the creative process, if we are always wishing for a draft more advanced than the one we are focused on in the moment, then our creative lives will always be devoid of joy, until all the writing is done.

Andy: Are there other common behaviors that undermine the creative process?

Joni: Oh yeah. Another example is how we set quotas for productivity that set us up for failure. Of course, we need to develop the habit of writing, which requires discipline and a bar—a tangible measure of productivity. But so many writers set that bar too high—“I will write every single day!” Then when we inevitably fail we are consumed with guilt. So why not set a bar that engenders steady progress, but is also humane? During one resistant period I set my bar at six sentences per day. That’s pathetic, you may be thinking, but it got me to my writing desk, where I then often lingered well after I’d met my meager goal.

Andy: Do you have any particular advice for how writers can invoke inspiration or “The Muse”?

Joni: It cracks me up how we talk of muses as if they are real. How is that different than believing in Santa Claus?The problem with waiting for inspiration from the Muse is that it could be a very long wait, and there goes another afternoon, or week, or sometimes a decade before we sit down to write. As Picasso famously said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Andy: What about process? Is there a right way to draft a story?

Joni: The right way is whatever works for you. Too many writers buy into the myth that we need to start with an outline and story structure. We think we need to write chapter one, then chapter two, then chapter three…and by that time a lot of us are ready to give up because we hit a wall, or drop into the saggy middle of our stories. For me, and for most writers I know, crafting a narrative in this linear fashion is at odds with our creative process. In fact, even if we could begin writing from an outline, it quickly feels like we are merely connecting the dots. This is how boredom can seep into the writing process. This is why I often advocate writing “random” scenes, irrespective of order, and trust that a narrative arc will assert itself.

Andy: I can imagine what the reader is thinking right now. But what if I write a bunch of scenes and they never fit together?

Joni: All I can say is that, based on years of experience helping writers complete powerful narratives, I am 99.8 percent sure this won’t happen to you. One reason is that, as a writer, your unconscious is a lot smarter than you are, so although your conscious mind may think you are all over the narrative map, the wiser part of you actually knows what it is doing. Even if you write random scenes in any order, you are likely forging connections and creating the elements of a story line without even being aware of it. The actual flow of that story line will become clear once you have produced enough scenes to make that structure more readily apparent.

Andy: Do you have a favorite bit off advice for writers?

Joni: Yes, and it comes from William Carlos Williams, a literary force published in the first half of the twentieth century, and the man I credit for saving writers from the overwhelm of abstraction. Williams described this writing method in the opening line from his poem “Paterson,” which reads: “No ideas but in things.” While Williams left the phrase open to interpretation, it is generally understood that what he meant was for poetry [or any form of creative writing] to deal in real stuff—concrete objects like a red wheelbarrow, or snakes, or snow—rather than dwell in the language of abstractions: truth, love, loss. Grounded in this visual imagery, the writing evokes the abstraction on a more visceral level, making the idea all the more tangible, and powerful. Essentially, this translates to how writers can “show” rather than “tell” meaning and emotion on the page.

“No ideas but in things.” I love the simplicity and directness of this guidance. I can write about things, and trust that my ideas will be conveyed through them.

Andy: In a recent article for The Writer magazine, you wrote about the difference between being an author and a writer. Which do you prefer?

Joni: On a bad day I might answer, whichever one I’m not doing at the moment. But of course both jobs have their highs and challenges. Being an author is a cool job title, but the job itself isn’t all that cool. In a lot of ways you’re your own administrative assistant, and depending on your personality, that means you may find yourself working for one of those bosses from hell. You have to create and keep growing your platform, promoting your work on social media without sounding too self-absorbed and obnoxious. Likely you also have to arrange most of your own book events, and talk yourself down when only two people show up at a reading. You also have to try not to obsessively check your Amazon ranking, or over-react when someone assigns your book two lowly stars out of five, while admitting in her review that she only read a couple pages. But then again, being an author is so worth  it when you realize you actually wrote a book—how great is that!—and people tell you they appreciate your work.

On the other hand, being a writer is preferable to being an author because, work-wise, nothing feels more meaningful to me than that process of discovery and manipulating words on the page to achieve meaning. That is, until I’m really stuck and frustrated, and that’s when I thank goodness I’m also an author because then I can procrastinate by rechecking my Amazon ranking.

Visit joni at www.jonibcole.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gina Cascone and Bree Sheppard on Author Book Promotion

June 26, 2017

 

around the world right nowAndy: Today we are talking with Gina Cascone, Bree Sheppard, and Roger Williams about their experiences as authors promoting the newly released children’s picture book,  AROUND THE WORLD RIGHT NOW. It’s  a wonderful book for children that takes the reader to all the time zones of the world and shows what is happening in different countries during the same moment of the day.  Right now something magical is happening somewhere in the world. The cable cars are waking up families in San Francisco. Lemurs are snagging a snack from a picnic in Madagascar. Scientists are studying the sky in the South Pole.

Bree and Gina

 

Pretty much every author I have represented is disappointed in the amount of marketing done for their book by their publisher. That’s why it’s essential for authors to have their own marketing plan and be ready to do the lion’s share of work selling their book. Fortunately for Gina and Bree, their husband/father is Roger Williams. Roger, like me, is a literary agent. But he has at various times in his life in book publishing been a publishing sales director and an independent bookseller. So nobody knows the ropes as well as Roger.

Guys, can you describe the elements of the marketing plan?  What are you doing to supplement their plan?

 

Around the World Chocolates

 

G, B, and R: Since this is our first picture book, we wanted to get out to meet as many booksellers as possible. Booksellers are wonderful partners – the original social media! When they like a book, they will hand sell it to their customers. Booksellers also have good relationships with schools, so we wanted to be sure the booksellers have everything they need to recommend AROUND THE WORLD RIGHT NOW to their school partners. So, with Bree’s two elementary age kids, we will be driving to 75 bookstores in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states to sign stock. We’ve made up boxes of chocolates with our business card and we are giving them a flyer that they can send to their school partners for future school events. We will be taking pictures throughout the tour to use for social media.

Andy: How did you coordinate this with your publisher, Sleeping Bear Press?

G, B, and R: We devised this plan, and presented it to our publisher. They were a bit dubious at first. This tour takes a lot of leg work, but we agreed to be the main point of contact with the bookstores. The publisher discussed the idea with their sales staff. They were very supportive and we began emailing the stores to set up the itinerary. The publisher has supplied us with catalogs for the stores, and an emergency stash of books, which we keep in the trunk of the car,  should some bookseller get caught without their order when we arrive.

Andy: Roger, what about marketing to Barnes and Noble, to Amazon, and to schools and libraries? Are you reaching out to them or is this the job of the publisher?

R: The Sleeping Bear Press sales manager did a great job presenting AROUND THE WORLD RIGHT NOW to the B&N buyers. The buyers liked the book enough to include the book in one of their summer reading promotions. The book is a display feature in the B&N stores until mid July. That is a real icebreaker when talking to the B&N Community Relations Managers at each store. With the buyer’s blessing we included B&N stores in our “Around the Bookstores Tour”. The B&N store staff have been wonderful and welcoming. The reason for visiting all these stores, B&N and Independent, is to drop off our flyer that they can use to reach out to their partner schools and Parent Teacher Organizations. So our booksellers are our ambassadors to the schools.  Regarding Amazon, we are happy that people are posting such nice reviews.  However, our goal right now is to introduce ourselves to as many bricks and mortar booksellers as possible.

Andy:  Has the publisher been encouraging about your outreach or have they tried to control or limit it?

G,B, and R: Sleeping Bear Press has been very supportive. It helps that we are former booksellers so we have some experience in knowing how to approach the stores. The key is to make this as easy as possible for the stores. No pressure to have stacks of books to sign. It’s the personal connection, and having a few autographed copies on hand that helps the stores. Of course having the chocolates to give out helps!

Andy: You guys sent me a box of those chocolates at Christmas time. It’s always good to have your agent on your side too. So more specifically, what else did the publisher do? I know you guys were at the book trade show signing copies of the book for booksellers. Publishers usually only do this for their lead titles. That’s a good sign?

G, B, R:  We were very lucky to have the support of the Sales and Marketing Director from very early on. Publishing is all about personal connection and we had the opportunity to meet with her shortly after we finished writing the book. We asked her the simple question. In her experience, what makes a successful author partner? She was very forthright, so we proceeded to do everything she told us to do! She was also instrumental in the design of our website, CasconeSheppard.com. It is always important to understand that publishing a book is a cooperative experience. We are so lucky that we can be a part of the marketing plan, but the key is to understand that we have to do a lot of work.

Andy: So what’s working? What isn’t working?

G,B,R: What’s working is staying on top of blogging and Facebook. Constant posting of photos helps. Sending thank you notes to everyone who does anything to help. What isn’t working is publicity. Publicity these days seems nonexistent. There are just so few review venues anymore. You have to make your own publicity on social media.

Andy:  I’m glad you mention social media. Tell me a little more about how you are using it and which venues are the most useful.

G,B.R: Social media begins with a good web site. We know from experience that a web site should be simple, informative, and fun – always offer buying options for the book(s) and have downloadable materials.  Next step is to write a fun blog posting a few times a month.  The blog post should be about something. Just hammering people to “buy my book” is going to get pretty stale. Saying something about how your book relates to life is reason to why people will keep coming back. The message of AROUND THE WORLD RIGHT NOW is “There are 24 hours in a day and every minute of every hour of every day, somewhere in the world, something wonderful is happeningSo that is the theme of every blog post.  Beyond the blog, we make sure that we post on Facebook. Facebook is a great way to keep a diary of our progress and stay in touch.

Andy:  What advice would you give to writers who are getting their books published for the first time? What should they be thinking about to help market their book?

G,B.R: Most authors like writing books, but are uncomfortable with the business side of publishing. However, the number one rule for being a happy author is to learn the business of publishing. Even if you already have a book deal you should seek advice from people in the business to help you understand what is realistic, and what is practical. Your agent, booksellers, librarians, or local writer’s organizations can help you find books and seminars on learning the business side of publishing and how to market your book. Going to writer’s conferences helps to meet knowledgeable people.  Joining established writer’s organizations helps. Working in a bookstore helps! It’s also worth looking at the web sites of your regional booksellers associations. Most of the regional booksellers associations have some ideas on what you can do for yourself to market yourself to their members. You can find information about the regional booksellers association at the web site for the American Booksellers Association, or just asking the owner of your local independent bookstore.

Andy:  Wow, guys! It sounds like you are having a lot of fun. I know you are really proud of this book. So am I. I wish all my clients were as savvy at marketing their books as you guys.

 

Susan Silver, Legendary TV Comedy Writer, Talks about Comedy

April 3, 2017

 

susan silver with mtm

Susan Silver with Mary Tyler Moore

Susan Silver was one of the original writers for some of the most iconic TV sitcoms.: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart Show, and Maude, among others. In fact in her first season, she had what was a record breaking number of assignments for the time, thirteen half hours! She also wrote two top ten Nielsen rated Movies of the Week.

I have worked on and off as Susan’s agent, and I can tell you it’s been a hoot. I’ve always wondered whether comedy writers are as funny in life as they are on the page. And Susan proves they are.

Andy: Hi Susan. Welcome to “Ask the Agent”. You have just released your new memoir, Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms.” Could you tell us a little more about it?

Susan:
susan silver coverWell,  it’s about show biz, of course, but also about being able to reinvent yourself throughout your life. Looking for love, in right and wrong places, finding continuous passion in whatever you do. Oh yeah and it’s got a surprise ending and it’s funny and sexy too…(she said modestly only blushing a little.)

 Andy:  As one of the first women in what was a man’s world in the seventies, what was it like ‘back in the day?’

Susan: Well, as I told The New York Times, who did an article about gender discrimination, when I worked on casting for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In  back in 1969, I wanted to be a writer, but the men didn’t want any women in their office which was in an apartment.  They wore underwear and wanted to fart…yeah you are hearing that right. So for the first time, I bet, The New York Times used the word “fart”  when they quoted me as saying: “farting almost cost me my career.”

But I prevailed. With a partner, Iris Rainer Dart, who later wrote “Beaches,” we were managed by the great comedy icon, the late Garry Marshall. He helped us break down the glass ceiling in 1970 for a show called  “Love American Style.”  Then Iris took a break to have a baby, and I went on to write alone for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which had just started mid season. I told Garry I could do that show because I was from the midwest too and had worked in a small TV station.  Because he backed me, they let me pitch stories, which was really a break.  They said if we get picked up, you’ll be hired.  It was my first script and the best possible place to start.

Andy: Love American Style. Now that’s a walk down memory lane. So, what made Mary’s show so great to work on?

Susan: The guys there, and they were all guys, Allan Burns, Jim Brooks were actively seeking women writers. They knew they wanted an authentic female point of view. I went in with stories from my own life that most women could have shared, but they hadn’t heard them before. Standing up for a wedding for someone you don’t like that much and wearing an awful dress…was my first. Or even in the closest of relationships, maybe wanting not to share your office with your best friend, wanting your own space.  Ed Asner’s Lou Grant character told Mary she was as “rotten as the rest of us.”  Of course, Mary immediately felt guilty and told Rhoda, whom she had lied to about the job…which Rhoda didn’t want anyway!

Andy: In your new book, Hot Pants in Hollywood, you say you are like a female Zelig, the Woody Allen character who stood next to every famous person in history. Other than myself, tell me some more of these iconic figures.

Susan: Well, very few measure up to you, Andy. It’s kind of wild. Because of my career, interest in politics, and incredible luck even before that, I’ve crossed paths with the likes of:

Jim Morrison of the Doors, Steve McQueen, Sean Connery, Presidents Nixon, Bush 2 and Clinton…and I could go on. I actually do in my book. I was fixed up with Lenny Bruce when I was in college — by his mother! I worked for Mort Sahl in one of my first jobs. And of course on Laugh In,  every one from Tiny Tim to then candidate Nixon passed through and I had to greet then and get them to sign their contracts…so that was a real feast.

I also have a gift…not a very valuable one but…I can spot a star at two blocks away. And I always know the place to stand in a room where they might come in. So..that helps.  Also I’m   not afraid to say hi to anyone. In fact, I saw Michael Caine the other day on the street and talked to him. He was very nice and much taller than I thought.  His wife was  pretty and not as interested in our conversation.

Andy: You also had a dating column for a while. Tell us about that.

Susan: Well, I’ve been divorced a very as in…verrrrrry long time. I’ve gone out with a lot of people. Ok, ok over 500 people.  But hey, I’ve been divorced since the last century.  Anyway, I had a column on the New York Social Diary called, “The Search For Mr. Adequate.”  The premise is there is no Prince, there is no Perfect guy.  I had an “Adequacy Scale” and the hope was you’d find someone more than Adequate and make him into the one.

I’m still looking.

Andy: Would you like to tell us about any of the famous men you dated?

Susan: Actually, I do have a free bonus chapter about a rock and roll star that I’d like to offer your readers. If you go on the website www.hotpantsinhollywood.com and send your email, I’ll send you the chapter. It’s a little naughty, so fair warning.

Andy: I’m intrigued.  Do you reveal how large his………… Oh. Never mind.  To continue, though, in writing a memoir, what were some of the surprises you learned about your own life.

Susan: Andy, are you asking a penile question?  Right…  Never mind.  I learned a lot. It was a hard, hard thing, actually…Oh… I thought we weren’t discussing penile questions. Rephrase…it was very emotional to relive the bad times, the hard times that we all go through, divorce, illness, death of parents.  And yet it was hopeful. I found I’m a lot more resilient then I ever realized. I’m grateful for all the good times. The fun times still make me laugh.  And as I say, ”I’m still here.!”

Andy: What do you think about the state of TV comedy today?

Susan: Well, the best thing is the prevalence of great talented women. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer …the list goes on and they are not only working, they are running the show. Women’s lives are portrayed in varied ways And of course, success breeds success. So it’s a good time for us.

Andy: Susan, thank you so much.  I’m really excited about reading Hot Pants in Hollywood and learning  about your rock and roll star lover….uh….I mean your experiences writing comedy.  The book is out now and in the bookstores.

Milton Viorst on Zionism

July 29, 2016

zionismWe are privileged to have with us today, renowned journalist, Milton Viorst. His new book: Zionism: The Birth and Transformation of an Ideal has been published this month from St. Martin’s Press.  Milton is a journalist  who has covered the Middle East for three decades as a correspondent for The New Yorker and other publications. I feel particularly privileged to be Milton’s literary agent for this new and important work of Jewish history.

 

AR:  Milton, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed on “Ask the Agent.”  There has been so much written on the subject of Zionism. Why do readers need another book about it?

viorstMV: There has not been a history of Zionism written for half-a-century, during which the Zionist movement has decisively changed.  After World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, most of the world was sympathetic to the establishment of a Jewish state.  Since then, Zionism has become the object of widespread criticism.  Its moral standing has diminished, even among those who continue to believe in its aims.  This book explores the events that explain why the world’s perception has been so dramatically transformed.

AR:  How have the aims of Zionism changed?

MV: The Zionist movement was founded at the end of the nineteenth century, when anti-Semitism was beginning to rage in Europe.  Its founder, Theodor Herzl, was convinced the Jews needed a state, preferably in Palestine, in order to survive, and history has affirmed his judgment.  But to establish a state, Jews had to overcome the fierce opposition of the local Arab inhabitants.   In 1948, after a  bitter Arab war, Israel was founded in most of historical Palestine.  Then, in the Six-Day War of 1967, the Jews conquered the remaining territory in which the preponderance of Arabs lived, and they have since  refused to withdraw from it.  The oppressive military rule that Israel has exercised over the Palestinian Arabs has cost them much of the international sympathy from which their earlier aspirations once benefitted.

AR: Do most Zionists concur in the current policy?

MV: From its very beginning, Zionism has been sharply divided, not so much on the need for a state as on the nature of the state.   Herzl himself warned of the obstacles created by merging the many and diverse societies in which Jews lived.   In Herzl’s time, the divisions were over how Jewish the Jewish state should be.  Herzl was a sophisticated Westerner who envisaged a secular state, like most states of Europe.  But Orthodox Jews, if they agreed to a state at all, could imagine only one that was ruled by Jewish law;  while a  majority of the Jews of czarist Russia, the most oppressed of Europe’s Jews, insisted on a state  that was not necessarily religious but was richly imbued with Jewish cultural values.  In time these Jews prevailed.

AR: Was  religion the only significant division?

MV: Not at all.  The widest split in Zionism developed between Vladimir Jabotinsky’s belief in the importance of the Jews using  their own military force to obtain a state and David Ben-Gurion’s belief in the priority of building political and economic institutions that would serve as the backbone of the state.    “Of all the necessities for national rebirth,” Jabotinsky declared, “shooting is the most important. ”   Ben-Gurion, meanwhile, was busy organizing a political party based on social democracy, founding a national assembly and creating the Histadrut, a uniquely Zionist organization that was part labor union, part industrial corporation, and part social welfare society.  It was Ben-Gurion’s vision that led to a modern, prosperous Israel.

AR: Where did the Balfour Declaration fit in?

MV: In fighting World War I, Britain believed it had an interest in cultivating worldwide Jewry, and in 1917 it promised a homeland to the Jews in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire.  At the same time, it promised not to violate the rights of the Arabs living in Palestine, creating a contradiction that was never really resolved.

AR: How did the Balfour Declaration play out after the war?

MV: Britain, with second thoughts, retreated on its pledges to the Jews.   Jabotinsky, convinced that Ben-Gurion was wasting his time building institutions, argued for a militance in taking over Palestinian territory.  The two men were bitter personal rivals for Zionist leadership, but their contrasting philosophies were also irreconcilable.  In 1934 Jabotinsky and his followers, known as the Revisionists, seceded from the World Zionist  Organization,  which Herzl had formed to govern Zionism.  To this day, the rift has not been healed.

AR: How did Jabotinsky’s Revisionism and Ben-Gurion’s mainstream Zionism handle their conflict during the struggle for independence?

MV: Jabotinsky died in 1940, but by then he had established his leadership over Betar, a militant youth organization  closely tied to the right-wing regime in Poland.  Betar gave Revisionism a fighting component, which it used to wage a guerrilla war against the British while they were still fighting the Nazis.   Ben-Gurion stayed faithful to Britain until the Nazis surrendered, and his forces attacked only after Britain refused to allow survivors of the Holocaust and their children to enter Palestine.  Even after Britain announced its withdrawal from Palestine in 1947 and Ben-Gurion prepared to declare Israel’s independence, the rival Jewish forces could not compose their differences.  Only after a brief but bloody civil war did the two camps, faced with attacks from their Arab neighbors,  agree to fight together under the government’s — that is, Ben-Gurion’s– command.

AR: What did the Palestinians do to save their land?

MV: Not much.   Convinced Jews had no rights to Palestine, and Britain had made it possible for them to be there,    Palestinians insisted that both leave and allow them to found their own state.  They initiated violence, in which blood was shed, but it was weak.  More importantly, they created no governmental institutions, and organized no effective military forces.  After the U.N. voted to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, they attacked the Jewish militias, but the competition was unequal.   When Ben-Gurion declared independence, the armies of five Arab nations attacked the state, but the results were no more favorable to them. .

AR: Given Ben-Gurion’s success as a state-builder, how did Jabotinsky’s Revisionism wind up in power today?

MV: Many Israelis ask this question.   Part of the explanation is that Ben-Gurion’s creation, the Labor Party, having been deluded by its earlier triumphs into letting down its guard, was held to blame for Israel’s near-defeat in the Yom Kippur war.  But, in the long-term, Israeli politics changed because the Israeli electorate changed.    A new generation of Sephardim– Jews from the Arab world– had now reached maturity, and was resentful that the Ben-Gurion camp had for too long ruled as if by a natural right inherited from Herzl.  There also arose a militant religious movement , composed of observant young people who worked in the secular economy but were heir to the Religious Zionists of the Herzl era.   After 1967, they embraced the doctrine that Palestine was holier even than the Torah, which inspired them to settle Arab land, though it often meant defying the state.

A decade later, Israeli voters transferred their long-standing loyalty from Ben-Gurion’s camp to Menachem Begin, heir to Jabotinsky.   Begin was not just the Revisionist rival; he was the non-Establishment alternative who took Israel on a more militant course, more defiant of world opinion.  With only a few interruptions, it has since remained on that course.   Benjamin Netanyahu, scion of a family long loyal to Jabotinsky, is today the leader of this course.   Jabotinsky would probably approve of it, but the instability of Israeli life seems far removed from Herzl’s Zionist vision of providing peace and security for the Jewish people.

 

 

Mary Mackey Talks about The Village of Bones

May 30, 2016

Today we are going to talk with Mary Mackey  whose new historical novel, The Village of Bones:mackey Sabalah’s Tale was released this month.  Mary is a bestselling author who has written seven volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of fourteen  novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. Mackey’s novels have been translated into twelve languages.

 Andy: Let’s cut to the chase, Mary: what happens in this novel? What’s The Village of Bones about?

Mary: Six thousand years ago, bands of marauding nomads from the northern steppes invaded what is now Bulgaria and Romania, bringing horses, male gods, and genocidal warfare to a peaceful, Goddess-worshiping Europe that had existed almost unchanged for thousands of years. This was a real invasion, with real consequences that we are still living with today.

In The Village of Bones I tell the story of a young priestess named Sabalah who conceives a magical child with a mysterious stranger named Arash. Sabalah names her child “Marrah.” Marrah will save the Goddess-worshipping people from the nomad invaders, but only if her mother can keep her alive long enough to grow up. Warned in a vison of the coming nomad invasion, Sabalah flees west with Arash to save her baby daughter, only to discover that she is running into the arms of her worst enemies. In the vast forests of northern France, other human-like species left over from the Ice Age still exist, and they are not—to say the least—friendly.

Andy: There are other best-selling books that take place in pre-historic times.  Is there anything in The Village of Bones that will remind readers of books or films they’ve enjoyed?

Mary: You’ll definitely be reminded of The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Mists of Avalon, and Avatar. Also, there are some scary giant sharks that eat anything in their path, including one another. When I say “giant” I mean really GIANT. I based them on the Megalodon sharks, which. lived 2.6 million years ago, were 45 feet to 59 feet long, weighed 50 tons, and had teeth seven inches long. If you heard the theme music from Jaws playing in your head as you read that, it’s no coincidence. Then there’s the Mother Book, an ancient, sacred text that contains all knowledge, past, present and future, including the knowledge of how to travel through time. As you read about Sabalah’s race to save the Mother Book from falling into the hands of the Beastmen, you may find yourself reminded of The Da Vinci Code.

Andy: You’ve said this novel explores the “original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures which appear so often in European folk tales.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

Mary: In the Village of Bones, I choose to imagine that other human-like creatures survived in small numbers in the forests of northern Europe. At present, we know about a number of ancient species that were human-like but not strictly human. The best known are the Neanderthals, who play a central role in The Clan of the Cave Bear. The Neanderthals actually interbred with humans, so we’re all a part Neanderthal. The lesser known Denisovans also seem to have interbred with human beings. Other human-like ancient beings we know about include Homo floresiensis, Homo erectus, and Homo habilis.

 As I began to write The Village of Bones, I came to wonder if perhaps small bands of these human-like beings survived long enough to be the original inspiration for the stories of fairies, gnomes, elves, and other magical creatures which appear so often in European folk tales.

Imagine for a moment that you are living 6,000 years ago, walking through the forest, minding your own business, when you stumble across a little man who is only three feet tall, covered with hair, and not quite human-looking. You might well think he is a magical creature, an elf, a fairy, a Hobbit.

Andy: Would you call this novel historical fiction, science fiction, or fantasy?

The-Village-Of-Bones-Low-ResMary: I’d call it all three. The Village of Bones crosses genre lines the way many of the really interesting books I love to read do.  Like Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and Audry Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife,  it combines historical fiction with science fiction. Like the characters in Diana Gabaldon’s wonderful Outlander Series,  the characters in The Village of Bones move in a world I’ve created by doing meticulous historical research, but they also take side trips into magic, prophecy, and fantasy. I’ve got giant talking snakes; I’ve got Goddesses who walk on water; I’ve got dolphins that will let you ride on their backs. But I’ve also got clothing based on materials found in ancient graves; houses based on the ruins of prehistoric houses; and forests filled with trees based on Neolithic pollen samples.

Andy: How did you become interested in the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe?

Mary: I didn’t know anything about them until I got a phone call one day from the head of HarperSanFrancisco. He had read my novel The Last Warrior Queen, which is about the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Sumeria. He told me he was about to publish a non-fiction book that dealt with the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe and asked me if would I be interested in writing a novel on the same topic. The manuscript of the non-fiction book he was about to publish turned out to be The Civilization of the Goddess by Professor Marija Gimbutas. Ten pages into it, and I was hooked. I began to write The Year the Horses Came about a week later.

Andy: Will Twenty-First Century readers find the story of these cultures relevant to their own lives?

Mary: Yes and no. Yes, because many of the issues my characters face are issues we face today. For example, the Goddess-worshiping cultures of 6,000 years ago considered the Earth both sacred and alive. We’re slowly killing the planet, and perhaps ourselves, by treating the Earth as a piece of real estate to be exploited instead of as a sacred trust to be tended.

No, because everything doesn’t have to be relevant all the time. Sometimes all we want is to put the troubles and anxieties of our everyday lives aside and go on vacation to some place new and exotic: back to the past, back to a world of magic and adventure where the mortgage never comes due, the computer never crashes, and interesting things happen.

Andy: How do you do research for a novel set 6,000 years ago? How close do you stick to the facts?

Mary: One reason I write historical novels is that the research is so much fun. To write The Village of Bones and the other three novels in The Earthsong Series, I traveled extensively through Europe scouting out locations so I could describe them accurately and visiting museums so I could see what was left from the cultures I was portraying. I saw the Great Nomad Gold Horde in Varna Bulgaria; statues of Snake Goddesses in Bucharest Romania; ancient cave paintings in southern France; Standing Stones in Brittany.

 Contrary to what you might imagine the realistic parts of the novel were actually the easiest to write because I had the extensive research of  Professor Marija Gimbutas to draw on. Professor Gimbutas, who taught for many years at UCLA, devoted her life to studying the Goddess-worshiping cultures of prehistoric Europe. Her two books The Language of the Goddess and The Civilization of the Goddess are gold mines of information. Professor Gimbutas generously helped me with the research when I was writing the first two novels in the Earthsong Series. Without her personal help and her work to draw on, it would have taken me a decade to write The Village of Bones instead of two years. She did all the hard work. All I had to do was pick up the bones she had uncovered, put flesh on them, and make them dance.

Andy: This is your fourteenth novel. Do you plan to write any more novels in this series?

Mary: Yes. The Village of Bones comes to an exciting climax and a satisfying conclusion, but I have  left some loose strings which I intend to pick up at some future date.

Andy: Tell us a little bit about why you write historical fiction. Do you read historical fiction? What are some of your favorite books in the genre?

Mary: I’ve always loved historical fiction as long as it’s meticulously researched, accurate, not preachy, filled with interesting characters, and tells a great story. Some of my favorites are: The Color Purple by Alice Walker; The White Queen by Philippa Gregory; The Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem; The Persian Boy by Mary Renault; A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Roman Blood by Steven Saylor, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The list goes on and on. I’m always looking for new ones.

 

Mary Norris, The Comma Queen

April 9, 2015

comma queen

mary norris new small (1 of 1)Several years ago we interviewed Mary Norris, copy editor at The New Yorker.  It was our most popular blog post ever with over 50,000 views.  I think the success of the blog partially inspired Mary to put her thoughts and experiences on paper. This week, Mary’s book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen was released by W. W. Norton. An excerpt of the book   recently appeared  in The New Yorker.  Mary tells us of the titanic battles over the elements of style: who vs. whom, that vs. which, the fate of the hyphen in the modern world, and all things having to do with the comma. It’s also very funny. I squealed with glee as Mary succeeded (as many in the past have failed) to explain the difference between restrictive versus non-restrictive clauses. She also includes lots of stories describing the punctuation battles at The New Yorker with such great writers as: Pauline Kael, Philip Roth, and George Saunders.

Andy: Mary, congratulations on Between You and Me. Every writer I know has been waiting for this book to get published. OK. Let’s not beat around the bush. Let’s begin with the mother of all punctuation battles, the controversy that has been causing the end of lifelong friendships, the issue of the Oxford Comma. Where do you and The New Yorker stand on this?

Mary: Hi, Andy. I can’t believe how passionate people are on this subject. I prefer to call it the serial comma, because the Oxford comma sounds sort of upper class, and though the use of the serial comma may mark a person or a publication as somehow particular or formal, it is really a down-to-earth practice, which keeps you from having to think about whether or not a series is ambiguous. It probably isn’t ambiguous, but that final comma before the “and” gives structure to a series, in my opinion. The use of the serial comma is The New Yorker’s preferred style, and I am sticking with it.

Andy: And while we are talking about commas, you seem to think that the world of writers can be defined by the general attitude toward the comma. There appears to be two schools on this, right?

Mary: Commas are for clarity. There are writers who use punctuation for cadence and writers who use it to reinforce grammar, and there are writers who blend the two approaches. There are many conventional uses of the comma that people waste time arguing about. I know it sounds stuffy to say that we use the comma because we’ve always used it—in a date, say (between the date and the year, and then again after the year, the second comma finishing what the first comma started; the British write the date before the month to avoid that comma), or between title and author (I’ll go with the obvious: Between You and Me, by Mary Norris)—but there really is no reason for some commas besides tradition. Untraditional punctuation can be fun, but it can also be distracting.

Andy: Since joining The New Yorker more than 30 years ago, what are the most interesting changes you have witnessed in grammar and usage?

Mary: I think the most persistent effort at change is going into trying to solve the problem of the genderless third-person singular pronoun. It is unlikely that a new pronoun will catch on, and people find it cumbersome always to say or write “he or she,” “him and her,” “his or hers.” Some have started using the feminine pronoun once in a while to fight sexism, and I’m for that. Others are talking about the “singular their,” which we use all the time in conversation (“Everybody takes their time on the subway stairs”) but try to avoid in print, because the grammar calls for a singular that doesn’t exist. The spoken language forges ahead while the written language, when carefully edited, is more restrained. I think it’s going to go on this way for a while, but the spoken language—common usage—seems to be winning, and some venerated copy editors are even trying out the “singular their” to see if anybody notices.

Andy: Give us writers some advice. If we have only one reference book on style, which do you recommend?  And the best dictionary?

Mary: I like Garner’s Modern American Usage. It’s thorough and clear on all the issues, and it has backbone: Garner is a conservative in matters of usage, yet he gives space to other points of view. His citations are numerous, and he uses an asterisk to mark the faulty passages, so that you don’t get mixed up. When I read Fowler, I sometimes can’t tell whether he’s citing a passage in approval or denigrating it. And Merriam-Webster’s is the great American dictionary. I still like to look things up in a desk dictionary, but the new online Webster’s Unabridged is superb.

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: 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: What do you think are the most common mistakes writers make with style and punctuation?

Mary: Now that I am on the other side of the pencil, having my prose scrutinized instead of scrutinizing the prose of others, I think people should be more tolerant. You can be too rigid in matters of punctuation, and I continue to be bemused by how much people care about it and how sometimes a sentence’s punctuation gets more attention than its meaning. The letters I’ve gotten about an extraneous comma between the two elements of a compound predicate! The letters I’ve gotten about using “gotten” instead of “got” for the past perfect of the verb “to get,” and vice versa! (Some people can’t stand “had got” and prefer “had gotten,” which The New Yorker style book characterizes as “country style.” That is a usage I have started to defy.) But here I am, using up my lifetime quota of exclamation points, so I’ll just say thank you, Andy, for getting the ball rolling (cliché!). It’s heartening to see that there is such passionate interest in matters of style. Sometimes it looks as if everyone wants to be a copy editor.

The Grateful Dead: A Cultural History

February 17, 2015

no simple highway2richardson Today we’re interviewing Peter Richardson, whose new book, No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, was released in January by St. Martin’s Press. There have been a number of books about the Dead over the years, but this one is special. From the beginning, I called it Thinkingman’s Dead. It’s a history of an iconic group, which is interesting in its own right, but it also helps us understand a distinctive strain of American culture in the second half of the twentieth century.

Andy: Peter, I love the fact that you organized the book around three utopian themes that have characterized aspects of American history and culture. Could you describe those themes, how they have played a role in our history, and how they help define the experience of the Grateful Dead?

Peter: My goal in highlighting those themes was to move toward a more interpretive history of the Dead and their project. Specifically, I wanted to account for their long-time success. To do that, I think you have to look outside of their songbook, albums, and concert tapes.

The first theme I identify is the drive for ecstasy, or the experience of total rapture. The Dead’s models (including the Beats) placed enormous importance on intense experience, and the advent of LSD supercharged that emphasis. Their penchant for ecstasy informs, but certainly doesn’t exhaust, the book’s discussion of the 1960s. Once the Dead had several successful albums in the early 1970s, they built their touring machine and incorporated mobility, another Beat preoccupation, into their operation but also into their mythology. In doing so, they tapped the American fascination with the open road. I highlight the third theme, community, in the final portion of the book. It’s very important throughout, but the Dead were especially successful at growing and consolidating their community in the 1980s. Of the three utopian ideals, community is probably the most important factor in explaining the Dead’s success.

Andy: You often describe the Dead as “tribal.” That is a word we used a lot in the sixties. What does it really mean and why is it important?

Peter: Much of the Dead’s success lay in growing the party, beginning with the Acid Tests in the mid-1960s. Even when they were selling lots of albums, they couldn’t support their scene through royalties alone. The community they built through nonstop touring underwrote their operation as well as their musical journey.

The Dead’s tribalism, by the way, presents authors with tough choices. When you’re writing about the band and their experience, you have this enormous cast of potential characters to consider. If you introduce too many characters, the major ones get lost in the shuffle. So I looked for characters who could advance the story at several different points or on multiple levels. I was looking for characters who paid their own way, so to speak.

Andy: What do you mean by “paid their own way”? Tell me about some of these characters.

Peter: I just mean that I was trying to avoid secondary and tertiary characters who appear one time and disappear. That makes for tough reading, even though it does reflect the Dead’s emphasis on community. But some characters, even those who aren’t strongly associated with the Dead, can help readers at several different points. Much to my surprise, one of those characters turned out to be Ronald Reagan. He was a perfect foil for the Dead and their project.

Andy: I’m glad you mentioned Reagan, because that brings up the important question of the Dead’s attitude toward politics. People sometimes criticize them for being apolitical.

Peter: Let me be clear about this, because it’s easy to get the Dead’s politics wrong. The Dead were constantly asked about politics, and they usually deflected those questions. They were outspoken about the environment, they criticized the war on drugs, and you can unpack their politics by reviewing their philanthropy, for example. But they rarely talked about electoral politics or politicians as such.

Garcia made an exception for Ronald Reagan, whom he ribbed repeatedly in the media. Also, the Dead were never more popular than when Reagan was in power: first in Sacramento and then again in the White House. Did the Dead have a long, bitter blood-feud with Ronald Reagan? No, of course not. But I don’t think their success in the 1980s, with Reagan’s militarized drug war and “Just Say No” message, was a coincidence. The Dead recruited many new fans when the Reagan message was to say no to drugs, but also to rapture, adventure, bohemianism, and other things the Dead stood for.

Consider the lyrics to “Touch of Grey,” the Dead’s only top-ten single. It’s an anthem to the Dead’s own survival in the Age of Reagan. And Dead Heads wanted to hear it, because it was about their survival, too. And it was also about Garcia’s survival—literally, since he was in a life-threatening diabetic coma the year before. So Reagan was, as I said, a character who paid his own way, first as the anti-hippie governor of California, and then as commander-in-chief in the war on drugs.

And for those who are still skeptical about the political dimension of the Dead’s story, consider the hit pieces on Jerry Garcia when he died. I mention three in the book: by George Will, William F. Buckley, and Mike Barnicle. Those pieces weren’t really about Jerry Garcia. They were about the legacy of the 1960s counterculture, which Garcia and the Dead had come to symbolize. That legacy was still being contested in the mid-1990s, a quarter-century after Woodstock, when the Dead’s popularity was peaking. Those hit pieces suggest that the iconic power and media stereotypes that attached to the Dead were—and still are—distorting our picture of them. No Simple Highway was meant to challenge those stereotypes and replace them with a fresh portrait.

Andy: You mention the Age of Reagan, the war on drugs, and the Cold War. What other cultural backdrops are especially important in your book?

Peter: One backdrop that I never tired of researching was the back-to-the-land movement: Maybe because I still entertain fantasies about it. I mean, what good Californian doesn’t want to leave the city and move to a hip Mayberry? And of course Mayberry was a product of that period, a kind of televised hallucination, along with the Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres and all the rest of it.

For the Dead, the back-to-the-land movement offered recourse to their roots in folk music as well as a path to commercially successful albums. In the late 1960s, they were hanging out with David Crosby and his new collaborators, who hit it big with Crosby, Stills & Nash. That album and their next one, Déjà Vu, really caught the back-to-the-land spirit—a connection to a simpler, more organic way of life. It was deeply nostalgic, but the nostalgia differed from Reagan’s, for example. And then the Dead scored big, too, with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

And once you start talking about that movement, you have to mention Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a love letter to that pre-modern, agrarian America. Brand is another example of a secondary character who pays his own way. He was a Prankster who organized the Trips Festival, published the Whole Earth Catalog, and then founded the WELL, the first online community that attracted lots of Dead Heads in the mid-1980s.

The back-to-the-land movement also gave me a chance to write about Marin County. Some big battles over open space were waged during that time, and the Dead loved Marin’s pastoral element, which was a movement ideal. And even though most people think of the Dead as a San Francisco band, they didn’t live in the city very long. Less than two years, actually, compared to decades in Marin.

Andy: How do you explain the continuing popularity of the Dead? A lot of the fans are one or even two generations removed from the original fan base.

Peter: It turns out people want some ecstasy, adventure, and community in their lives. And I think the continuing popularity you mention testifies to the third thing in particular. The Beatles didn’t foster community, and Bob Dylan, for all his other points of contact with the Dead, most emphatically didn’t do that. Quite the opposite, in many ways; he was always the solitary artist who cultivated mystique.

Many critics didn’t understand that Dead concerts were an opportunity for that community to commune. That urge didn’t perish with Jerry Garcia, and its members still draw a lot of identity and significance from their association with the Dead. I’m pretty sure you’ll see that in action this summer in Chicago.

Andy: Thanks, Peter. People, you should go out and visit your local independent bookstore and pick up a copy of No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. I think you will like it.

 

 

Tawni Waters on Beauty of the Broken

October 1, 2014
tawni headshot

photo copyright Joe Birosak

beauty of the broken coverEvery once in awhile, you read a book that grabs your heart and won’t let go. It doesn’t happen very often. When it does, it stays with you forever. For me that book is Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters, released this week by Simon/Pulse. I suppose you could say this is a YA lesbian coming of age novel. But that’s a little like saying Moby Dick is a book about fishing. It’s the story of Mara, a 15 year old girl growing up in a small town in New Mexico in a family that raises the meaning of “dysfunctional” to a new level. On the first page, Mara’s drunken father smashes her beloved brother, Iggy, with a two by four causing permanent brain damage. The stakes are raised when Mara  finds herself falling in love with the new girl in a town where lesbians are considered “abominations”. The scene describing Mara’s recognition of this first love is one of the most memorable portrayals of that universal experience I have ever read.

Early readers have characterized Beauty of the Broken as “heart wrenching”,  “devastating”,  and “unforgettable”.  And, indeed, when I read it, I found myself finishing the book at 3 AM and sobbing like a baby. But it’s also a triumphant and  life affirming book and one that gives a universal message of the virtue of human courage. Beauty of the Broken is an astonishing book.

Today we are going to interview Tawni Waters and talk to her about her creative process.

Andy: Tawni, can you tell us a little about how you conceived of Beauty of the Broken.

Tawni: Honestly, I didn’t conceive of the novel.  I conceived of a character named Mara, a brilliant, tormented girl who was dealing with some really ugly abuse, trying to come to terms with her identity in a hyper-religious small town.  It’s so cliché, but I swear, I didn’t invent this thing.  Mara told me her story, and I wrote it down.  She was that real to me.

I didn’t originally write Mara as a lesbian character–that part of her emerged slowly, as I was writing later drafts of the book.  She would wax poetic about Xylia [the new girl in the school], and finally one day, I said, “Hey, wait.  I think Mara is in love with Xylia.”

Beyond wanting to write a story about this character who just grabbed hold of my heart , I wanted to write a book about the struggle between love and dogma.  I always say, “If your dogma is stronger than your love, you are in danger of atrocity.”  Mara’s sexual orientation only heightened the themes that were emerging as I wrote the first draft.

Andy: When I read the book, I knew on the first paragraph that it was special. But you wrote it years ago. Why did you wait so long to try to get it published.

Tawni: Because I thought it sucked.  Not really.  Actually, I thought it was good in the early years.  I tried to publish it, but when nothing came of it, I stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it.  I’d take it out and dust it off every once in a while.  But for the most part, I let it lie fallow.  It was nothing more than a faint memory by the time I sent it to you, believing you’d think it sucked too.

Andy: How has the book changed from your first draft.

Tawni: Where do I start?  In the first draft, Iggy [Mara’s brother] remained lucid throughout the book and died in a war.  Xylia was his girlfriend.  Mara and Xylia’s love affair didn’t really develop until late drafts of the novel.  In the early drafts, they were just close friends.

The only thing that has remained constant during the various drafts is the Stonebrook family dynamic and Mara’s character and voice.  Everything else was a crapshoot.  You know that Stephen King quote, “Kill your darlings.  Kill your darlings.  Though it break your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”  Well, I’m a professional darling killer.  There are probably a thousand pages of Beauty of the Broken lying on the cutting room floor.  Very little of what I wrote made the final draft.

Andy: People are just beginning to read BOTB. The reactions by readers is unbelievably emotional. The book seems to be touching them in some deep place. Can you describe that and maybe explain it?

Tawni: I was talking to my students about this subject today.  I told them a story from my life–the death of my beloved father–in all its gory detail, and almost cried as I was telling it to them.  I wasn’t trying to manipulate them emotionally, nor was I trying to cry.  I just let myself be vulnerable and honest.  I let myself feel the emotion of the memory.   Because I was so deeply invested in my story, they all became emotional too during the telling.  Then, I told them that the intensity and emotional connection I displayed during that telling is where they have to go if they want to touch readers in a deep, true place.

Part of this probably goes back to my dramatic training.  I was an actor for years, so I think sometimes my acting bleeds into my writing.  I know how to authentically emotionally connect to artistic material.   But beyond that, I just have a gift for living in the moment, for really feeling things.  (I call it a gift now, but ask me if it’s a gift after a couple of glasses of wine, or after some cruel creature has broken my heart.)

Ultimately, I think that people respond emotionally to my writing because I am responding emotionally when I write.  I am giving them an authentic, vulnerable piece of myself.  I think our society often conceives of art as this thing that elevates an artist over her audience, but I think of it as a bridge that connects equals.  The first storytellers were connecting with their clans around campfires.  I don’t put a literary method on the page.  I put my heart on the page.

Of course, I’ve taken years to hone my craft, so I’ve learned how to go back and clean my heart up after it’s on the page.  This is important too.  Hearts are pretty, but they’re sloppy sometimes.

Andy:  I like Nietzsche. In his Birth of Tragedy, he talked about Greek tragedy as being a combination of the rational spirit of Apollo with the ecstatic sensibility of Dionysis. The words of the play being Apollonian and the music, the chorus, being Dionysian. I see this same dichotomy in the creative work of writers, particularly writers like yourself who seem so in touch with an inexplicable creative spirit. It seems to me that stories come to you almost effortlessly, but then you need to do the hard work of perfecting them.  Can you tell me about this?

Tawni: You had me at Dionysus.  Really.  I’m a sucker for all things Greek.  I think for me, creative writing requires two distinct processes.  During the first, I let down all my walls, write whatever comes into my pretty little head.  I barely lift my fingers from the keyboard.  I don’t censor myself.  I just let whatever wants to be written–good, bad, or ugly–make its way onto the page.  I think of creating a literary work of art as being something like creating a sculpture.  You can’t make a sculpture without clay, so during the first draft, you are just throwing clay in a box.

But during the second draft, the second process, you are really starting to shape the clay.  You are cutting out the ugly stuff.  You are moving things around.  You are killing the hell out of your darlings.  I have great reverence for art, so I take my darling killing seriously.  If the writing isn’t masterful, it hits the cutting room floor.  And I don’t stop at a second draft.  I worked on Beauty of the Broken on and off for fifteen years, so you can imagine how many drafts went into hat.

Andy: Barnaby, New Mexico is the small town where Mara lives. The spiritual life of the community is dominated by Reverend Winchell a fire and brimstone preacher, who sees homosexuality as an “abomination”. Your father was a clergyman. I don’t imagine he shares any similarities with Reverend Winchell.

Tawni: Actually, my father, the late, great Timothy John Hackett, was the antithesis of Reverend Winchell.  He was the most loving human being I have ever known, and if I can be remembered as being even a tenth of the human being he was, I’ll be happy with my life’s accomplishments.  He was the one who taught me unconditional love, who taught me the difference between a loving God and cruel religion.  I deliberately dedicated this book to my parents, saying they taught me the way of love, so that no one would ever confuse them with Reverend Winchell.  I feel like I owe everything that is good in me to the influence of my wonderful parents.

I actually based Reverend Winchell on a preacher I heard once in Roswell.  He screamed, “God hates fags!” from the pulpit.  I sat there trying to pick my jaw up off the floor, utterly astounded that there were people in the world who were that dark and closed-minded, and outraged that he was foisting his bigotry and hatred on God.  If you’re going to be that stupid, dude, at least take responsibility for it.  Don’t drag God into your idiocy.  (That preacher had a big truck.  I think he was compensating for something.  I’m just saying.)

Andy: Beauty of the Broken has been characterized as a lesbian coming of age story. As I said at the beginning, that doesn’t begin to do credit to the book. But that’s a big part of the story, Mara’s discovering her attraction to Xylia. Are you a lesbian? Is this a story that is mostly going to resonate with lesbians? Or is there something more universal here?

Tawni:.  As I said, I didn’t set out to write a lesbian novel.  I set out to write a story about the battle between love and dogma.  Mara’s character emerged as a lesbian, but that was secondary to her humanity, as well it should be.  Anyone’s sexual orientation should be secondary to his or her humanity, yes?

Am I a lesbian?  Every time I tell people I have written a lesbian coming of age novel, they ask me this question.  The answer is no, I am not a lesbian.  I am not a huge fan of labels, at least not for myself.  I believe firmly in love.  I believe love–true, selfless love–is holy in all of its manifestations.  I love who I love, regardless of the package they come in.  I am a love-ian.

Andy: Tawni, that’s a good note to leave on. Tawni is going to be doing events at various venues throughout the country. Here are a few:

October 4: Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Arizona

October 18: Bookworks, Albuquerque, New Mexico

November 7: Book Passage, Corte Madera, California

November 10: Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pennsylvania

 

 

Laura Fraser Talks about Shebooks

July 26, 2014

Fraser-cropToday we are going to interview Laura Fraser, co-founder and editorial director of Shebooks, a new publishing company devoted to promoting works by women authors and journalists. Shebooks publishes short e-books, either by subscription at Shebooks.net (you download a free app for your tablet or smartphone from the app store) or individually, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Kobo. Shebooks is a new model for publishing, inconceivable only a few years ago. I think of it as sort of a hybrid that mixes up characteristics of traditional book publishing, long form magazine publishing, and self-publishing.

Check them out at http://www.shebooks.net

Andy:  Laura could you tell us something about yourself and the work you did before founding She books?

Laura: I’ve been a freelance writer for 30 years. I started in journalism and published many magazine articles. My first book, Losing It, was an expose of the diet industry. My next book, An Italian Affair, was a NYT-bestselling memoir. My latest memoir is called All Over the Map.

Andy: What made you decide to start Shebooks?

Laura: Even for someone like me with a fair amount of success in the publishing and magazine worlds, it was becoming increasingly difficult to make a living. The space for long magazine articles had shrunk in women’s magazines, and the top shelf long-form magazines publish mostly men, even in 2014. That means fewer intimate memoirs about women’s lives. My last book didn’t sell well, so I became unattractive to the publishing world. Even with a NYT bestseller under my belt, it was like, “What have you done lately?” So I wanted to create a platform for women like me, essentially, where we could write high quality work and get it published.

Andy: In this day and age, do you really think there is still that much bias against women in the media? I work with hundreds of book editors. These days they are almost all women. It wasn’t always like that. Comment?

Laura: There’s a huge bias against women in longform journalism. Just go to vida.org, the organization of women in literary arts, and look at the statistics on men being the vast majority of writers published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, etc. There is a bias toward what I would call external rather than internal stories, and women are more likely to write about internal adventures. Any broad stereotypes about male and female writers, of course, can’t be applied to everyone, but I think it’s fair to say that women’s experiences are under-represented in magazines in particular because so many more men are published. It’s less of a problem in the book world.

Andy: Tell me a little more about Shebooks’ publishing program. You aren’t like a typical book publisher. Most books are more than 60,000 words. Your books are a lot shorter. Why?

Laura: Digital publishing gives us an opportunity to publish things at the length they ought to be. Right now, there is a vast middle ground between, say, personal essays and a book. There are a lot of stories that should be told in less than the 80,000 words it takes to fill a physical object called a book. That’s why so many memoirs feel padded. I want to make a t-shirt that says “No padding.” Digital gives us flexibility. Also, people read digital on the go, in the little pockets of their lives. Many of us still like to curl up with a hard cover book, but if I’m traveling or commuting, I read on my device. I want to read high-quality stories rather than watch cat videos.

Andy: Ever thought about putting some of the best writing into an anthology? I think that would be cool.

Laura: Yep.

Andy: You have published two of my favorite clients: Mary Jo McConahay and Meghan Ward. Both memoirs. What other genres are you seeking?

Laura: Short memoirs are our sweet spot. We also publish journalism that isn’t very time-bound, as well as fiction. There are very few places to publish novelettes or novellas.

Andy: What’s the difference?

Laura: About 20,000 words.

Andy: Do you have any opinion about the big issues that are being debated in book publishing right now? Tell me what you think is the future of big New York publishers? Do you think self published books are the answer? Given the number of self published titles that sell in the high “two figures”, I’m not sure it is all it’s cracked up to be.

Laura: It’s all about flexibility and finding the right platform for your message. Sure, it’s great to go with a legacy publisher if you’re one of the 1% of authors they’ll pay attention to. Self-publishing still has the patina of being not good enough for the big houses. But that’s changing. As with digital vs. paper publishing, it isn’t an either/or situation.

Andy: It seems like Shebooks is kind of a hybrid. Something in the middle. Can you tell us about this?

Laura: We are a highly curated collection of short e-books. We’re closer to a legacy publishing model than self-publishing. We pay close attention to quality, to copyediting, to design. But we give our authors a 50-50 revenue split, which gives them incentive to help publicize the books. They make more; with legacy publishers, it’s about an 85/15 split. So we’re not like self-publishing at all, though there is less barrier to entry for a good writer who hasn’t sold a lot of books. The fact that we are a subscription service means that we don’t have to be hit-driven like the legacy publishers. We can publish a lot of beautiful little books and they don’t have to be bestsellers.

Andy: Any thoughts on the big bad Amazon.com? They have certainly been a windfall for ebook publishing. Do you think that maybe they are becoming too powerful though?

Laura: Amazon takes a 30% bite of everything anyone buys on their site. That leaves precious little margin for anyone else. You can’t just bitch about Amazon, though; it’s a big reality, so you have to work with it, or do a workaround so you can make money—as we’re trying to do, by subscription from our own e-reader app, leaving Amazon out of the picture.

Andy: Ok. Let’s talk about your Netflix-like subscription model. Describe that and tell me how it’s working.

Laura: We have a growing library of short e-books, publishing at a rate of 2 per week. When you subscribe, you get access to our whole library. When you stop subscribing, poof, they’re gone. Right now we have 60 short e-books in our library that you can’t find anywhere else. Yes, Amazon has more, and so does Oyster, but we’re like a boutique where you can walk in and know that everything is quality.

Andy:  Since Shebooks is so different from traditional book publishing, how do you go about promoting it? Who’s your audience and how do you reach them?

Laura: We’re still figuring all of this out, but of course we rely a lot on social media. We are also doing deals with women’s magazines and brands to help leverage our brand. For instance, we had a memoir contest with Good Housekeeping which brought Shebooks in front of 25 million readers. We’re doing more partnerships like that.

Andy:  Shebooks are available at the usual online venues, but you are also selling them yourself. What is working the best for you?

Laura: It’s financially better for us if people subscribe directly from our website so Amazon doesn’t take a big bite. But we’re happy to have people read our books wherever they find them.

Andy: How can writers submit to you?

Write@shebooks.net. We take only well-written, polished submissions of about 10,000 words, give or take. My sole criterion as editorial director is that I have to feel compelled to keep reading!