Posts Tagged ‘books’

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

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.

 

A Book Acquisition Editor Talks About Rejection

February 4, 2016

 

annaWriters spend a lot of time and energy fretting about and suffering over rejection. That’s understandable. As an agent, I get rejection letters every day for my clients’ submissions. It feels a little like going to the dentist. We have a lot of posts on “Ask the Agent” analyzing this painful subject. Today I want to repost   an article by a book  acquisition editor, Anna Leinberger, of Berrett-Koehler Books. It’s good to see what the other side has to say about this.

On Vulnerability and the Submissions Process

Submitting your written work to a publisher or an agent is one of the most terrifying things a writer experiences and, even worse, one that any writer must constantly repeat.  Vulnerability is an inextricable element of the publishing process, and it is not something that humans particularly like, and not one we do well. An author is virtually guaranteed to be rejected most of the time, especially when starting out.  Adding insult to injury, the rejection does not necessarily end once you have been published. Truly, it does not end until you are E.L. James; the editors I work with regularly reject book proposals from authors we have already published if we think the new proposed book is not ready, if their last book did not sell well, or we don’t think there is a market for the new topic (etc.)

Elaborate Constructs

Humans are really good at protecting themselves from this traumatic experience.  We build glass castles around ourselves- elaborate constructions built of justifications, defensiveness, and preemptive strikes.  Query letters are full of flashy language designed to get an editor to take note; letters contain demands: “respond promptly” in an attempt to grasp some power in the relationship.  Here is the thing though- none of those tactics work. Tactics don’t work.  The only thing that is going to catch my eye is a great idea that is plainly stated.  That is it.  There is no secret, no elaborate scheme that will convince me that your idea is great if it is not great.  If it is, and a host of other elements are in place (people know who you are, you have credibility, the market is not already saturated, we did not just publish two other books on the topic, I am personally interested….and on) you will have a shot at being published.

Glass Houses Are Not Actually Safe.

Humans love these glass houses because they offer us the illusion of safety.  “I must have messed up the cover letter!” or “My hook was not strong enough!” or “My idea is genius, it is just that I don’t have a platform and that stinking publisher is only after money!”  But it is a fallacy.  When the glass house shatters, the only thing you are left with is that the idea or your platform  was not ready. It is the most human thing to try every mental trick possible to protect yourself from the idea that your book was not up to snuff. But in blaming it on a typo in your cover letter, rather than facing the cold hard truth, you are losing a profound opportunity to face reality and choose to make your project better.

Be Vulnerable.

Be terrified. Put your work out there. Accept the news that it is not ready yet. Take every piece of feedback you can get your hands on, and be brutal with yourself.  Don’t waste brain power creating elaborate judgments and justifications. As painful and scary as you might find it, face the rejection, look it in the eye, and squeeze every last piece of useful information out of it.  When you have done that, move forward again.  Be vulnerable again, and again, and again.

 

About Anna Leinberger

Anna is a writer and editor at Berrett-Koehler Publishers in Oakland, CA. You can follow her on twitter or Medium for more on writing, editing, and literary witchcraft.

The PEN – Charlie Hebdo Award Controversy

April 29, 2015

I’m so angry I could spit!

This year the PEN America Center, a writers’ organization whose mission is to defend the free expression of ideas in literature decided to bestow it’s Freedom of Expression and Courage Award to the staff of Charlie Hebdo.

In protest, six prominent authors: Rachel Kushner, Peter Carry, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, and Taije Selasi announced that they would not attend the ceremony. Thus began one of those periodic literary dust ups that only we few band of brothers in the book world care about. But, as they say, “ the politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low.”

Low, indeed, but I’m still so angry I could spit.

None other than Salman Rushdie launched the counter- attack. He said, “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”  Salman got down and became a little earthier on Twitter when he characterized the PEN 6 as “Just 6 pussies. Six authors in search of a bit of Character.”  [hear, hear Salman!]

Francine Prose responded on Facebook by throwing out red herrings expressing her shock that Rushdie would use the sexist term “pussies.”

Meanwhile short story writer Deborah Eisenberg weighed in with a letter to PEN executive director, Suzanne Nossel opposing  PEN’s giving the award to Charlie Hebdo. Depending on how you feel about the subject, her letter was either nuanced or unintelligible. I prefer the latter characterization.

During this entire affair,  when the world rallied in outrage over the Charlie Hebdo murders, when the leader of Hezbollah and the Likud Party in Israel both agreed on something for the first time in history, there was an ugly current among some left wing intellectuals that insisted on defining the offending caricatures in Charlie Hebdo as Islamophobic and undeserving of – well- anything. Most of them, like Deborah Eisenberg, were at pains to point out that they don’t believe in murder. And I’m sure this is true and also beside the point. But, as Salman points out, I wonder how deep is their commitment to free speech.

My favorite comment by an author and the one that I feel most reflects my opinion and feelings was by Geraldine Brooks. She said:” The point of free speech is that it’s free. Free to be offensive, to be misguided, to be crude or wrong. If you start to cherry pick which kind of speech is worthy of defending, you might as well be ISIS. I’m thoroughly shocked that a group of writers I admire have castigated a free speech organization for recognizing artists butchered because of their commitment to free speech.”

I  decided to say my peace on the subject. I wrote this letter to PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel:

“Dear Ms. Nossel,

I want to express my support for PEN in honoring Charlie Hebdo and also my indignation at the authors who have decided not to attend the awards in protest. I read the exchange of letters between you and Deborah Eisenberg. I thought her opinions that she expressed were unintelligible and indefensible.

The issue isn’t just a matter of abstract principle for me. I’m a literary agent. But before that I was the owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley for 30 years. In 1989, Cody’s was bombed for carrying The Satanic Verses. It was another creative work that satirized religion and was no doubt extremely offensive to certain people. We were probably the first victim of Islamic terrorism in the United States. Afterwards the Cody’s staff had to decide whether we should continue carrying Satanic Verses. It wasn’t an easy choice at all. No one wanted to be martyrs to the cause. But the staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Rushdie and the entire writing community stood united with us, and gave us courage.

I am glad you have honored Charlie Hebdo for showing their courage as well. I’m sorry those six writers have such short memories and such a weak and confused commitment to the values that PEN exists to defend.

I hope you will reaffirm your commitment to those values and to your decision to honor the courage of Charlie Hebdo.

Andy Ross”

Suzanne Nossel responded to my letter by saying: “Don’t worry. We are hanging tough.”

PEN has put up a website, a forum where people can make their own opinions known. I encourage you all to do so.

How Not to Flog Your Product on Facebook

December 5, 2014

Most writers seeking to get published for the first time have to think about  the challenge of developing platform. “Platform” is a big thing for publishers, particularly for non-fiction projects. Before you start having fantasies of speeches by Mussolini, I should point out that we are talking about  the kind of platform that gives you credibility or access to national media. I have said before that platform is either an endowed chair at Harvard or  you’re sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser.

There are a lot of people out there who will charge  money to tell you that you need to blog, twitter, and have a Facebook presence in order to develop your platform. I do hereby tell you the same thing for free.  But realistically, these tools are not going to help you sell thousands of books unless you have many thousands of Facebook friends and followers of your blog. And even then, those people have to care about YOU, not just whatever it is you are hawking.

You have to be careful about how you use Facebook to promote yourself. I spend a fair amount of time on Facebook. It’s a great way to  waste hours by engaging in errant political bickering, spreading celebrity tittle-tattle,  or viewing cute  pictures of kittens. Most of my 900+ friends on Facebook are associated with writing and book publishing. I  enjoy communicating with them and seeing what they are thinking about. I like to rant about Amazon.com.  Sometimes I try to be funny or gently snarky. I try to be respectful, even when I am utterly contemptuous of an idiotic political position someone is espousing. And sometimes I take the opportunity to promote my business or the books of the authors  I represent. My Facebook friends  tend to root for me when I do.

And then there are people who just want to flog their product. They don’t seem to have much of an interest in me other than as a potential customer. And they assume that I don’t have much of an interest in them except to buy their… whatever. Some of them won’t even post pictures of their kittens, for crying out loud! When I see this, when I get dozens of posts each day  on my Facebook feed that just promote a person’s stuff, I kind of feel manipulated. I kind of don’t want to buy what they are selling. I kind of react to it like I do to telemarketers.[“Please, take me off your call list!”]

I guess what I want to tell you is that people spend time on Facebook because they like to talk to other people, to share ideas, to express their feelings, to be connected. It’s a  personal thing. And when people engage with you on that level, they will be interested in your work and might even be motivated to buy your book or watch your movie. But they don’t like being used. And they probably won’t want to support you if they feel like that’s all you are doing.

In other words,  if you want to make Facebook part of your platform, then remember the platform is YOU, not your product. And when your friends really care about you, well, they might even buy your stuff.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson On What Animals Teach Us About Human Evil

March 5, 2014

Beast-HC jeff and benjyToday Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson will be talking to us about his new book, Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Human Evil, released this month by Bloomsbury Press.  Jeff has been writing about animal emotions for 20 years. His books, When Elephants Weep (1996) and Dogs Never Lie About Love (1998) have each sold over 1,000,000 copies. Jeff is one of the most brilliant people I have ever had the honor of knowing and working with.  His intellect is both passionate and  wide ranging. Last year, when I visited him at his home in Auckland, New Zealand, he commenced to spend 3 days  ranting at me about the flaws in Hannah Arendt’s concept of evil. (Apparently the fine people of New Zealand don’t have strong feelings about this topic.)

Of all Jeff’s books about animals, this one seems to get to the heart of  the moral boundaries that separate humans from animals. Jeff begins with an observation that illustrates the  puzzle that this book will seek to solve. He says: “There are two major predators on the planet with the most complex brains in nature: humans and orcas. In the twentieth century alone, one of these animals killed 200 million members of its own species, the other killed none. Why?”

ANDY: Jeff, we wrestled with the title of this book for years. And I think we are both pretty happy about it. There seems to be some irony in it though. Can you explain what you mean by “beasts”? How do expressions we use about animals show our basic misunderstanding?

JEFF: Too often, in order to insult somebody, we say that he behaved like a beast, or an animal.  I was reading Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg, about the terrible gulag prisons, and came across this:  “I have often thought about the tragedy of those by whose agency the purge of 1937 was carried out… Step by step as they followed their routine directives, they traveled all the way from the human condition to that of beasts.”  Think of all the times we describe humans in order to demean them as some kind of animal.  So we call someone vermin, a worm, a snake, a wolf, a blood thirsty beast (my favorite), an ape, a bitch, or a pig.

ANDY:  As in many of your books, you try to contrast the peaceable kingdom of animals with the horrors of human behavior manifested throughout history.  But there are numerous examples of animals doing violence to humans and to each other. Perhaps you are overstating your case.

JEFF: They do violence to us and to other animals, for sure.  But not to the extent that we do violence to them and to one another.  The disparity is just mind boggling.  I don’t see animals as saints (human saints are not saints either), but they don’t seem driven to, for example, exterminate all members of a different clan of tigers, elephants or crocodiles.

ANDY: Whenever I tell people about your thesis, they always bring up the example of chimpanzees as animals that seem to engage in gratuitous violence. Isn’t this contrary to your ideas?

JEFF: Yes, to some extent.  In the book I go into this in some detail.   Jane Goodall is the first person to notice the violence of chimps and she would also be the first to acknowledge it is simply not on the scale of human violence.  I guess it’s so shocking because so unexpected.  We expected chimps to be more like, well, bonobos!  They are a different species of chimpanzee, just as closely related to us as the other, but completely peaceable.  They have been studied, but not yet in the same detail as the more violent chimpanzee.  They are led by females, and this may be why (I mean why they are less violent AND why they have been less studied!).

ANDY: One of the themes you talk about here and in previous books is that animals, unlike humans, have no sense of  “other”. To a dog, another dog is just a dog, not a different species. But for humans, the idea of “other” has created all sorts of horror. I’m fascinated by your anecdote about “the last Kantian in Germany”. Can you relate that to us?

JEFF: Yes, it is one of my favorite anecdotes, and it’s true.  And it’s deep.  Emmanuel Levinas, the Jewish French philosopher and survivor of the Holocaust, was in a labor camp for officers on the outskirts of the city of Hannover.  When they were marched out of the camp they were treated with contempt, and looked down upon as “vermin,” not even human.  With one exception:  a stray dog who found his way into the camp.  Each day, when the prisoners returned to their camp in the forest, the dog would greet the line of men with great excitement and friendliness.  He was always delighted to see them.  He was there in the morning when they were assembled, and  “was waiting for us as we returned, jumping up and down and barking in delight.”  “For him,” Levinas notes, “there was no doubt that we were men.” Levinas immortalized the dog later with the title of the last Kantian in Nazi Germany.  This dog, like  the great philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and all dogs, understood that humans are an end in themselves, and not a means to an end.

ANDY: This book audaciously takes on the nature of human evil by contrasting our behavior to that of animals. But you also give the devil his due. Humans have a kind of compassion that we don’t find in the animal world. Why is that?

JEFF: I don’t know, but it’s true.  No animal has become a doctor specializing in humans, or built a hospital to take care of humans.  We can mobilize hundreds of other humans to search for a lost dog.  Individual dogs will search for us, but they wouldn’t implore other dogs to join them.  I’m sure everyone can think of examples of this human quality of compassion, including, of course, thousands of people in the animal rights movement.  Some of us, raised as carnivores, go vegan.  No other predator species in the wild has ever foregone meat for moral reasons!

ANDY: Jeff, one last question. At the end of the book, you take on the ideas espoused by Steven Pinker in his controversial work, The Better Angels of Our Nature. He argues that human violence in the modern world has declined. You disagree. Will you comment?

JEFF: I have an appendix in my book where I address this question at some length. Apart from his distorted version of prehistory, surely it is odd, in a book arguing that violence is decreasing all over the world, that there is little or no mention of Srebenica, the Rwandan genocide, Pinochet in Chile, the junta in Argentina (or Brazil or Greece); no entry under colonialism, the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, or Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe; and only one mention of Mussolini and two of apartheid, and with virtually no discussion of the violence in places such as Guatemala.

 ANDY: On March 9 at 1 PM, Jeff will be appearing at Book Passage in Corte Madera in conversation with Daniel Ellsberg. This is an event you don’t want to miss. Two towering intellects who have spent their lives trying to understand how evil manifests itself in human history. You really need to be there.

 

On the 25th Anniversary of the Rushdie Affair

January 14, 2014

nerudaFebruary 1 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of  Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the United States.  Two weeks after publication, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (a religious ruling), that declared it permissible for Muslims to assassinate  Rushdie because of the “blasphemous” subject of the book.

Cody’s was bombed on February 28, probably the first incident of Islamic terrorism in the United States.

There was a lot of talk then and I’m sure there will be much written today about the meaning of the Rushdie Affair. Of course, in the narrative of events, the independent bookstores were the heroes. — Well, actually Rushdie deserves some credit as well. — The big chain bookstores pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves after the fatwa. But most independent stores continued selling it. David and Goliath stories are always compelling, and this was no exception.

There was a lot of histrionics in the literary community about how people were willing to take a bullet to defend the First Amendment. But the bookstores were on the street and were particularly vulnerable.

Well, I’m not ashamed to say that I never put the book in the window. Actually, before the bombing, I learned while I was out of town that someone had made a window of the book at Cody’s. I told them to take it down immediately. I had no intention of having a Cody’s employee taking a bullet for the First Amendment or for any other reason.

Still we continued selling the book. The staff at Cody’s voted unanimously to keep carrying it  even after we were bombed.

The only artifact I have of the Rushdie Affair is a copy of The Sea and the Bells, a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda. We discovered an undetonated pipe bomb rolling around the poetry section the morning after a fire bomb had been thrown threw the window. It was too dangerous to remove the bomb, so it was detonated in the store.  As you can clearly see. the shrapnel did some damage to the book, but it didn’t destroy it, not even a single poem.

I can’t think of a better symbol of what the Rushdie Affair was about, of it’s true historical meaning, than the image of this book.

Below are my recollections:

Remembering the Rushdie Affair

On February 28, 1989 Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store  to put out the fire. The firemen’s efforts at containment did considerably more damage than the fire, itself. I came down to the store at about 2 AM and  waited around most of the night. I made some phone calls to the American Booksellers Association and, I believe, my mother and brother informing them of the incident.

We  assumed then the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although we  never learned exactly who was responsible.

Let’s backtrack a little. In September 1988, Penguin Books published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the UK. From the beginning it was considered a literary masterpiece and Rushdie’s most ambitious work. Sadly for him, it satirized some themes in Muslim history and theology. In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a fatwa, a decree under Muslim Sharia law, declaring the book blasphemous and offering a bounty for Rushdie’s murder.

Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman  Rushdie with a fake mustache.

The publication unleashed a fire storm, literally and figuratively. There were book burnings all over the Muslim world and fire bombs thrown into book stores in the UK. In the book world there was a veritable frenzy of people issuing pronouncements about defending freedom of speech from terrorists and fanatics. There was a lot of talk about people sacrificing their lives, if necessary, to protect this freedom. Writers’ organizations started handing out buttons that became ubiquitous in publishing saying: “I am Salman Rushdie!.” Of course with the death threats flying around, certain wags started wearing buttons saying: “He is Salman Rushdie!.”

The book was published in the United States at the beginning of February. Several weeks later, America’s largest chains; B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble; pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. The writers’ organizations, led by PEN America and just about everyone else in publishing went ape-shit. PEN organized a public reading of Satanic Verses and a march to Dalton’s to picket the store. Susan Sontag was president of PEN. Norman Mailer was the past president. They were everywhere speaking about the outrage. There continued to be much breast beating  by writers and  public intellectuals  pronouncing their  willingness to give their lives for the cause.

I was watching all this with a lot more than detached interest. It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived   fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees. From  my vantage point, this was not such an easy decision.

Then Cody’s got bombed.  I spoke of the firebombing that occurred at 2 AM.  What came later was more alarming. The next morning, as we were cleaning up, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. Lawrence Davidson, who discovered the bomb, ran upstairs to warn me to leave the building. If I haven’t told you before, Lawrence, thanks.

As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. But there and then, I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent.

We all assembled across the street facing the building, which had been cordoned  by yellow tape.   The police bomb squad entered  to see if they could diffuse the bomb. Apparently they judged it too dangerous to remove. They decided to pack it with sand bags and detonate it in the store. We heard the bomb blast and watched as the building shook. I remember thinking this was unreal. It can’t be happening. Then I started crying. Of course the media vultures loved this and stuck a camera in my face to record the tears rolling down  for the six o’clock media clips.

We all pulled ourselves together and returned to the store. I called a meeting in the café. Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

When the staff had assembled, I told them we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or alternatively,  take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this.   It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was also the moment when I realized bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation; because, after all,  ideas are powerful weapons. I felt  just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But with the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians, and movie stars. Of course, the booksellers were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence,  had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole.” Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “Well, you know some people get statues, —- and others get holes.”

 ***

After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso  painting from his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against union organizers, but  I doubt he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice my family left home and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although the Ayatollah had issued a fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The  New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a janitor from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time.”That’s what they told  Dan Rather. That’s what they told The  New York Times. That’s what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that’s what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, managing the media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with the metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes.  It turns out there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during this encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window, as if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..My….Lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly and in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think it was more an act of solidarity than a desire to read the book. Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at their convention to talk about my experiences. I told them I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got on the podium  and saw the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping at last she would acknowledge Cody’s did something special. In the course of her talk, she was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The  New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California:….. Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.

Michele Anna Jordan on Food and Food Writing

September 7, 2013

jordan picVinaigrettesNew200Today we are going to talk to Michele Anna Jordan about food writing. Michele is a James Beard Award winning author and food and wine writer.  She is the author of 18 cookbooks. In 1989, she was voted Best Chef in the Sonoma County Art Awards. She lives and writes in Sonoma County where she pretty much has sewn up the title of  “Sonoma food guru”. Her new book, Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings, was published this year by Harvard Common Press. Right now, it’s the best selling book on salad dressing in America.

Andy: Michele, you’ve been writing cookbooks now for nearly 25 years. How has the market for these books changed during that time?

 Michele: Readers don’t seem to have changed much. They still want what they did when my first book came out, which is to say good recipes with clear instructions accompanied by interesting stories and a context that is both broad and deep. Readers like context–not just culinary, but also geographic, historical, emotional.

But getting a book into a reader’s hands has changed in big ways. Advances are a fraction of what they were a decade or so ago. More of the marketing and promotion work is put onto the author. Some publishers do nothing or next to nothing to promote the book once it’s published. Publishers expect the author to provide photographs and other materials to the publisher free of charge. The kind of high quality food photographs you see in cookbooks can be very expensive to produce.  With my first book, I was offered $2000 for testing expenses. That never happens now.

Andy: Has anything gotten easier?

Michele: Yes.  I no longer print out a 500-page manuscript and send it off by FedEx.  Nearly everything, except for final galleys, is done by email. Of course, that means no more “It’s in the mail” excuses to buy time, either. With my most recent book, nearly all the editing was done digitally.  Quality photographs are, for the most part, much easier to produce these days too. All this speeds up the process and gets  the book to the marketplace more quickly than in the past.

Andy: It seems like celebrity chefs are a bigger part of the food world than ever. How does The Food Network and food TV play into this? How is it manifested in the book  publishing world?

Michele: Chefs and cooks were once simply physical laborers. Early cookbooks were written by doctors and then Fanny Farmer and the Domestic Scientists came along  at the end of the nineteenth century and began to codify home cooking.  This codification also lead to over-manipulation of foods and attempts to deny both appetite and the pleasure we take in eating. This had a pretty devastating impact on the American palate.

Andy: So when did all this start to change?

Michele: Stay with me here a minute, okay?

Fast forward to the Gourmet Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the back-to-the-earth movement coincided with increased European travel and a re-emergence of pleasure as a pursuit. Alice Waters, herself not a chef but an inspired restaurateur, rode this wave to fame and fortune. In her wake came all that we see today: Restaurants as havens of the best food, chefs as elevated celebrities, home cooks — by definition inferior. Vanity cookbooks–coffee-table books that tell a chef’s story or  a restaurant’s story and offer recipes put together by a kitchen staff of a dozen or more sous chefs — became a huge industry. This all received an enormous boost when The Food Network finally took off.

Andy: So how did putting it all on TV change things?

 Michele: It’s  made cooking a spectator sport,  passive entertainment for a huge portion of the population.  It’s left us feeling disempowered, in the sense that the Food Network makes us believe that it requires some sort of  magical talent  to make great food. I find this sad, since the real skill of a professional chef is management and consistency, the ability to put out plate after plate of reliable food day after day. You don’t need this skill to be a fabulous home cook. You just need to make fabulous food.

Now, back to the codification and over-manipulation of food. Thomas Keller of The French Laundry is often heralded as the best chef in America or even the world. I use him as an example because he’s probably the best known of his ilk. But if you look at his food, it’s over-manipulated to the degree that it is more of an intellectual exercise than a sensual pleasure. He and others like him have brought cooking back to where it was for the Domestic Scientists, who took great pleasure in creating such things as “all white meals,” in which everything was cut quite precisely and cloaked in white sauce, frosting or such so as to disguise it entirely. Pleasure and its handmaiden, appetite, were the bane of their existence. This newest version of their aversion to appetite has had a pretty devastating effect on the American palate.

Anyone interested in this part of our culinary history must read Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro.

Andy: Michele, explain that a little more. I went to the French Laundry, and the food was delicious. Are you saying it doesn’t taste good?

Michele: I feel like Thomas Hardy after the publication of Jude the Obscure, when he said he’d be a fool to stand up and be shot (he was referring to his decision not to write any more novels). but here I go, I’m standing up.

In all honesty, Keller’s food doesn’t always taste good. When I was there about a year and a half ago, a couple of things were good but not great, some things were mediocre and a few things were not good at all–but most things looked lovely, in a very symmetrical, constructed and often clever way. And I found certain elements offensive. For example, a tower of eight white plates and saucers elevated an espresso cup full of what was said to be carrot soup. Eight plates! All I could do was think about the poor dishwashers and the water they’d need. And the soup? It was hot carrot juice with a leaf of tarragon. I love purity of flavors and the showcasing of single foods grown and harvested perfectly but hot carrot juice is a bit disgusting.

Andy: Yuck!

Michele: Most presentations were like this, cerebral, ostentatious, pretentious and, in the end, not about the food.

What most offended me were  the four dessert courses, each one with several highly manipulated elements. I felt infantilized and, really, just wanted another lamb chop or some such, since there really wasn’t all that much on the savory side. I was embarrassed, too, because neither I nor my companion wanted all those sweets–they were cloying and a bit candy-shoppish. We just pushed them around on our plates so our waiter would think we’d eaten.

And the bill! It was $668 for lunch for two, which included just two glasses of sparkling wine and one glass of pinot noir. Two people could fly to Hawaii and back for the cost of one mediocre, forgettable lunch.

Andy: Boy, I hope your partner grabbed the check! Ok, let’s say that I’m getting started in cooking and I want to have one book that tells me all I need to know. It used to be The Joy of Cooking. Does that book still reign supreme? Or is it just a well established name brand? What are some good alternatives?

Michele: I think the 1974 edition of The Joy of Cooking remains an invaluable resource. The 1964 edition is excellent, too. The 1997 edition, not so much. But nothing has replaced it. Some have tried but none have succeeded, not so far.

Andy: That’s very interesting. How are the editions different? Have they changed because of food trends?

Michele: Yes, the 1997 edition was too  trendy. A group of well-known chefs did the revisions and there was more focus on professional techniques, flavors and ingredients than previous editions, which have so much down-to-earth kitchen wisdom. As soon as I looked through it, I realized it was not going to become a classic. And it hasn’t.

 Andy: So now I have my one standard book. And I want to build a modest cookbook library. What are the next 10 titles that I should buy for my kitchen shelf (after I purchase Vinaigrettes, of course)?

Michele: This is a personal question that depends on your food preferences, how much time you like to spend shopping and cooking, etc. I read cookbooks for inspiration, and I recommend them for this purpose too.  So this is a very personal list that represents a wide range of cuisines. The first book is one I always recommend. Sadly, it is out of print, though you can find it fairly easily on line. It is brilliant but overlooked and underrated.

Unplugged Kitchen by Viana LaPlace

Fish Forever by Paul Johnson

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan

The Italian Baker by Carol Field

The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy

Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells

Arabesque by Claudia Roden

The Original Thai Cookbook by Jennifer Brennan

Andy: You can get hundreds of thousands of free recipes on line. Just look at Epicurious. Why would anyone need to buy a cookbook any more?

Michele: When it comes to free on-line recipes, it’s a jungle.  So watch out for those pretty but poisonous plants. I frequently peruse the major recipe web sites to see what’s there and I’m appalled by what I find: poorly written and untested recipes predominate. A lot of them absolutely will not work. There is no consistency when it comes to seasonality or quality. Randomness rules. Sure, you might find a recipe you like. But there will be no context, no relationship. Nothing is vetted; there’s no central voice.

A good cookbook has been vetted on many levels. Recipes are tested. There’s a voice, a point of view, at the center of it all. There’s context and, in the best of them, there is depth. A good cookbook is like a friend who joins you in the kitchen. It’s a relationship, not a one-night stand.

Andy: When I think of regions that are important in the food world in California, the places that come to mind are Napa and maybe Berkeley. Last time we talked, you said something surprising.  You believed  Sonoma County is much more important now than either of those places. Care to elaborate?

Michele: I could write books on this topic. Oh, wait, I have! Sonoma County has always been much more important when it comes to food than either Napa or Berkeley. Berkeley has plenty of claim to fame, of course, and launched the Gourmet Ghetto and the food revolution and gave us L.  John Harris, Alice Waters, Les Blank, Peet’s Coffee, Acme Bread, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant and so much more. It spread the gospel. But look at early Chez Panisse menus: They are filled with foods and wines of Sonoma County.

Napa has a singular focus, wine. It is a long inland valley with temperatures that rise as you head north. It was easy to spread the gospel of Napa because there was a single story, which Robert Mondavi told exquisitely well. The walnut and  cherry orchards and other farms and ranches mostly disappeared as viticulture eclipsed everything. There are plenty of high-end restaurants with world-wide reputations in Napa, which makes sense, given the wine business. But this is about dining, not about cooking or farming or ranching. Napa produces some food, yes, but it must reach beyond its borders for most of its raw materials. The first place they reach out to is Sonoma. Attend any farmers market in Napa County and you see dozens of vendors from Sonoma County.

Sonoma County has five major valleys, with dozens of microclimates within these valleys. It has a seacoast. Our history of farming and ranching extends back to the 1800s, when an olive oil industry thrived here and Luther Burbank called it the chosen spot of the entire planet, as far as nature is concerned. We have some of the country’s finest dairies and the cleanest milk in America. We have extraordinary cheese makers and yogurt producers. Pastured eggs and poultry, the best lamb in the US, glorious duck, succulent grass-fed beef, delicious pork and goat, all come from our ranches and farms. We were pioneers in mesclun, the salad mix that is now everywhere. In the early 1980s, high-end restaurants from Honolulu to New York City had Sonoma County mesclun on their menus. Several local foods–the Gravenstein apple, the Bodega Red Potato, the Crane Melon and Dry Jack Cheese among them–have been taken onto the “Ark of Taste” by Slow Food.

There is a long history of home cooking here, too, with a patchwork of influences that include Portuguese, French, Italian, Swiss and German immigrants. More recently, Asian immigrants have had an impact on the region, too, especially on our agriculture.

According to several recent polls, Sonoma County is the top destination for wine travel, for wine and food travel and for food tourism. Healdsburg has been named one of the ten best small towns in America.

Frankly, I thought this would happen sooner than it has. My first book about Sonoma County food came out in 1990 and my second, a revised and expanded edition, came out in 2000. Both were ahead of the curve by several years. But now, Sonoma County is on the national and international stage, as it should be. It’s both a satisfying and a worrying development. We need to protect and preserve what we have, one of the finest agricultural environments in the world.

Andy: Michele, thanks so much for this. As usual, you are brilliant, provocative and refreshingly counter-intuitive. Gotta go now and make some of your delicious salad dressing from Vinaigrettes.