Monday, April 28, 2008

Copy Edit Purgatory

For the last few weeks I have been ensconced in my office, furiously making corrections to my manuscript. I have been in copy editing purgatory, that never-never land between a mess and a finished book.

I now appreciate the merits of a copy editor. I thought I had turned in a fairly clean manuscript, but my copy editor caught dozens of mistakes. I would spell a company's name one way on one page and another way fifty pages later. And he caught those discrepancies.

Those errors were easy to correct. What was excruciating was fixing my footnotes. I have been researching the life of Isaias Hellman for eight years now and have gotten information from a half dozen libraries, dozens of newspapers and books, and visits to places around the world. I thought I had documented the sources of all my information, but I soon discovered that I was missing a page number here, a folder number there, or a title or publisher. It took hours and hours and more hours to track everything down.

The photo is a picture of my office after I had finished. Papers everywhere.

Here is a close up of a page of my footnotes. The copy editor's comments are in red and my corrections are in blue and green. The picture below is my manuscript, finally completed! It's close to 470 pages, which will be about 380 in book form. Now I am just waiting for the finished cover.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Detritus of Life

Originally uploaded by hellvetica
Martin Gee, a Mercury News designer, has posted a series of photos of the remainders of the dozens of journalists who recently left the building. It's all as you would expect -- empty desks, empty bulletin boards, stacks of chairs, etc -- and quite moving. (via Peninsula Press Club)

John King, the Chronicle's architectural critic, talks about the new Cody's Books on Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley and how bookstores contribute to neighborhood life.

Lisa Margonelli won a Northern California Book Award in nonfiction for her book Oil on the Brain: Adventures From the Pump to the Pipeline. Cristina Garcia won the fiction prize for A Handbook to Luck. Robert Hass won the prize in poetry for Time and Materials. You can find a complete list of winners here.

Lucky authors can be on their very own trading cards. The latest to get this honor?
Bonk author Mary Roach.

The Grotto, the San Francisco Writers' Collective, has started its own blog.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Writing California I attended a fascinating conference over the weekend, one that was stimulating and depressing at the same time. It was the California Studies Association conference at Berkeley City College, put together by a group of writers and academics interested California politics, culture, art, ecology, and social movements.

There were many incredible panels, including one on immigration and the border, one on the Port of Oakland, and one on how California will be affected by global warming. And Jackie Goldberg, a former state assemblywoman, gave a rousing and scary speech about the state of education. You can hear it here.

But my favorite panel, of course, had to do with books. It was called Writing California, and it examined the work of four distinguished authors: John Steinbeck, Carey McWilliams, Wallace Stegner, and Mike Davis.

Rick Wartzman, a BusinessWeek columnist and former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, talked about his upcoming book Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which will be released in September. The Grapes of Wrath is set in Bakersfield, and the town reacted badly when the book was released in 1939. Wartzman’s narrative nonfiction account explores a week where the Board of Supervisors banned the book and locals burned it. The heroine is a librarian who defends the book’s publication. The book is also an exploration of race relations in California at the time.

Phillip Fradkin, the author of a new biography about Wallace Stegner, talked about the writer and teacher. Peter Richardson, the author of a biography about the writer Carey McWilliams, talked about he was “one of the most important writers of whom we have never heard.” Richardson said McWilliams was one of the most versatile public intellectuals of the 20th century, who was alternately called “liar,” “dupe,” and “doe-faced Typhoid Mary of the left.” (The latter came from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) He wrote about race relations in California before it was topical, and released a book Factories in the Field, about those in the agricultural industry, just two months after the publication of Grapes of Wrath.

UC Berkeley Professor Richard Walker discussed the works of Mike Davis, a prolific writer who came to great public attention with the publication of City of Quartz. It was wonderful to hear Walker’s explanation of Davis’ scholarship. Like most of the other authors discussed on the panel, Davis is a combination of investigator, academic, and activist. He has Irish working class roots, has always felt like something of an outsider, and writes convincingly about an astonishing range of subjects, from the rise of the car bomb, to the urban slums of the world, to the reason why we should let Malibu burn.

What stood about these authors is that they all wrote elegantly and prolifically about California, yet they all left the state in the latter part of their careers. It was true then (and is still true now) that real fame and glory are anointed back East, and these writers sought greater recognition by traveling to the country’s intellectual center. (Stegner didn’t actually leave California, but he did have his ashes spread over his farm in Vermont, a nod, according to Fradkin, to East Coast values that venerated history, allowed its landscape to recover, and held constant a core set of values.)

“Maybe there is no such thing as a California writer,” said Fradkin. “Either they die an unnoticed death by the Eastern literati or they go back East.”

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Does This Mean I am a Real Author?

I found my book listed on Amazon last night. What a thrill. I guess this means it is really happening. I've had a lot of clues recently -- a payment from my publisher that was triggered by their acceptance of the manuscript, the returned manuscript, covered with more red copy-editing comments than I could have imagined, and long discussions over the title. The one that is listed on Amazon is not the right title. (More on all this later.)

Still, what a thrill.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

2008 Pulitzer Prizes

My old journalism school colleague, Sam Roe, won a Pulitzer Prize on Monday for the Chicago Tribune’s investigative series on the hidden hazards in Chinese-made toys, car seats and cribs. The companies making the toys apparently knew that they posed choking hazards, as did the federal government, but no one did anything about it. Several kids died as a result.

In these days of gloom and doom in the newspaper industry, the Pulitzer Prizes serve as reminder of what journalism can do: that old adage, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Now people are looking first to the Web for their news content. Many newspapers are still turning out important stories but the ranks of decently-paid reporters are growing thinner.

Sam and I graduated from the Columbia Journalism School in 1986. Sam has been honing his reporting skills for 22 years. Experience counts. Not just the ability to throw up a quick blog post. (where, alas, I have landed.)

Friday, April 04, 2008

Northern California Book Awards

Interior of San Francisco Public Library

There are so many book-related awards that it’s hard to know which ones to trumpet and which ones to ignore. Since this blog deals in part with the Bay Area literary scene, I try and mention prizes and contests that concern local authors.

It’s April, award season. The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced on Monday, always an exciting day in the publishing and journalism worlds.

The book critics of the Northern California will be handing out their annual awards on April 13 at 1 p.m. at the San Francisco Main Library. This event honors Northern California writers, so it is an interesting snapshot of the talent that surrounds us. The awards are sponsored by many of the Bay Area institutions that form the backbone of the literary community, including The Mechanic’s Institute, Poetry Flash magazine, PEN West, the San Francisco Public Library and the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library.

Here are the nominees:


* Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra, HarperCollins

* The Great Far Away, by Joan Frank, The Permanent Press

* A Handbook to Luck, by Cristina Garcia, Alfred A.


* A Far Country, by Daniel Mason, Alfred A. Knopf

* Locke 1928, by Shawna Yang Ryan, El Leon Literary Arts


* The Science of Leonardo: Inside the Mind of the Great Genius of the Renaissance, Fritjof

Capra, Doubleday

* Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline, Lisa Margonelli, Nan A.


* Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately

Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution, Thomas McNamee, The Penguin Press

* Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Robert

B. Reich, Alfred A. Knopf

* Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race, Richard Rhodes, Alfred A.



* Ticket to Exile, a memoir, Adam David Miller, Heyday Books

* Back on the Fire: Essays, Gary Snyder, Shoemaker & Hoard

* Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for

Politics, Rebecca Solnit, University of

California Press

* Poor People, William T. Vollmann, Ecco

* The Fragile Edge: Diving and Other Adventures in the South Pacific, Julia Whitty,

Houghton Mifflin


* Frail-Craft, Jessica Fisher, Yale University Press

* Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005, Robert Hass, Ecco

* Expectation Days, Sandra McPherson, University of Illinois Press

* The Second Person, C. Dale Young, Four Way Books

* Embryoyo, Dean Young, Believer Books/McSweeney's


* Translation by Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, by

Robert Alter, from Hebrew, W.W. Norton

* Translation by Alison Anderson, The Palestinian Lover by Sélim Nassib, from French,

Europa Editions

* Translation by John Balcom, Driftwood by Lo Fu, from Chinese, Zephyr Press

* Translation by Carol Cosman, Exile and the Kingdom by Albert Camus, from French,


* Translation by Anne Fountain, Closed for Repairs by Nancy Alonso, from Spanish,

Curbstone Press


* Penguins, Penguins Everywhere!, Bob Barner, Chronicle Books

* The Apple Doll, Elisa Kleven, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

* Do the Math: Secrets, Lies, and Algebra, Wendy Lichtman, Greenwillow Books

* The Hound of Rowan: Book One of The Tapestry, Henry H. Neff, Random House

* Why War Is Never a Good Idea, Alice Walker, illustrated by Stefano Vitale, HarperCollins

Local critics read the books, discuss their merits and pick the winners. All of the nominated books will be saluted at the ceremony, but only six authors will walk away with the honors.

In addition, a SPECIAL RECOGNITION AWARD will go to River of Words, the Annual Environmental Poetry & Art Contest Conducted in affiliation with The Library of Congress Center for the Book

Fred Cody Award for Lifetime Achievement to be presented to Al Young

This year's Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement will be presented to Al Young. Poet-novelist-essayist Al Young has authored two recent collections of poetry

- Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons: Poems

2001-2006 (Angel City Press, 2006) and Something About the Blues (Sourcebooks Media Fusion, 2008).

To Go:

The 27th annual Northern California Book Awards takes place on Sunday, April 13, 2008, 1:00-2:30 pm at the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library's Main Branch, 100 Larkin Street in San Francisco.

A book signing and reception with the authors follows the Awards Ceremony in the Latino/Hispanic Room from 2:30-4:00 pm. Nominated books will be on sale at the Book Bay, San Francisco Main Public Library.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

David Sheff and Nic Sheff and their Tales About Crystal Meth

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. Drugs suck. That was the overwhelming feeling I came away with last night after attending a reading by the best-selling writer, David Sheff and his son, Nic Sheff.

That observation may seem mundane, even obvious. But I came of age in the 1970s when teenagers regarded drugs as recreation, a way to change life’s tempos. Since I never developed a drug habit, I had little reason to reexamine my assumptions.

But as the Sheffs’ searing books make clear, using drugs is a form of Russian Roulette. You might smoke some pot and snort coke and never get that bullet in the chamber. On the other hand, the bullet can fire in the first round.

David and Nic Sheff spoke to more than 200 people at a benefit for Beyond Borders, a summer program at Marin Country Day School that brings together kids from every socioeconomic class. David served on the Beyond Borders Advisory Board. His two younger children also attend Marin Country Day School, so he was really talking to his community. It was clear that the evening was an emotional one for David. The people in the audience were his friends, those he relied on during the five year odyssey of Nic’s dependence on crystal meth.

The evening started out with an announcement by journalist Gary Pomerantz, who also served on the Beyond Borders Advisory Board, that David Sheff’s book Beautiful Boy will be #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list this week. The crowd roared and clapped at the news. Nic's young adult book, Tweak, is also selling briskly.

It’s not surprising to hear this. In the age of memoir, this one speaks to an enormous audience. Drug addiction pervades our society and the treatment options are poor. So hundreds of thousands of Americans are left to muddle through a hodge podge of rehabilitation centers, detox clinics, hospitals and the like.

Throughout the tour, audiences have shared their own stories about addiction and that was also the case last night. One woman stood up to ask if love would help her brother through his addiction. The sad answer was no. Nic Sheff said that while he was gripped by drugs, all he could think of was himself. He rarely pondered how his family was reacting to his drug use and he certainly wasn’t thinking about their best interests.

Other people with addicted sons, brothers, and husbands came to hear how the Sheff family worked their way through Nic’s addiction. Nic said he finally confronted the empty feeling inside of himself and realized he could no longer try to obliterate it by getting high. Surprisingly, Nic said, once he focused on his inner feelings of inadequacy, he didn’t find them too hard to overcome. It was the fear of those feelings that pushed him into drugs. That path ultimately proved more difficult than just coping with himself.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

April Fools Day Musings

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. For a laugh, read Ed Champion’s April Fools' Day posts.

I was very happy to see this film deal reported in Publisher’s Marketplace:

Mark Kurzem's THE MASCOT: UNRAVELING THE THE MYSTERY OF MY JEWISH FATHER'S NAZI BOYHOOD, to Heathcliff Productions, in a significant deal, by Sarah Self at The Gersh Agency, on behalf of Robert Guinsler at Sterling Lord Literistic.

The Mascot is the amazing story of Kurzem’s father, who escaped annihilation during the Holocaust and lived like a pet with Latvian soldiers during the war. He dressed up in miniature Nazi uniforms and had to pretend he was not Jewish, all the while living among soldiers who were hunting other Jews. After the war, he moved to Australia and promptly repressed his history until it came back to haunt him. It's a remarkable survival story.

Another shout-out: I went to see novelist/performance artist Alison Larkin on Sunday in a benefit for PACT, an adoption alliance. I went because I was intrigued by Larkin’s new book, The English American, but left with a deeper appreciation for the conflicts and identity crises that can face adopted children.

Larkin was born in Bald Mountain Tennessee and was adopted by a British couple. The family lived in Africa and then moved back to England. Larkin didn’t know she had American roots until her adolescence and she created a one-woman show about her dual identity that was a smash hit in Britain.

From that, Larkin wrote The English American, a very funny novel with an adoptive heroine at its center. The protagonist has a happy childhood, but still wants to uncover her roots. For a taste, consider these opening words:

“I think everyone should be adopted. That way, you can meet your birth parents when you’re old enough to cope with them. Of course it’s all a bit of a lottery. You never know who you’re going to get as parents. I got lucky. Then again, if I’d been adopted by Mia Farrow, rather than Mum and Dad, today I could be married to Woody Allen.”