Friday, February 20, 2009

Bay Area Literary Tidbits

This drop-dead gorgeous view of the California coast is the spectacle that greets diners from the deck of the Nepenthe Restaurant in Big Sur. Romney Steele, a Bay Area food writer and stylist whose grandparents started the eating establishment. has just sold a book about her experiences, according to Publishers Marketplace:

Romney Steele's MY NEPENTHE, part memoir-part cookbook from the legendary Big Sur cliff-side restaurant and hangout of Henry Miller, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Kim Novak, to Kirsty Melville at Andrews McMeel, for publication in Fall 2009, by Carole Bidnick at Bidnick & Company (World).

Raj Patel, the author of the bestselling Stuffed and Starved, sold another book, according to Publishers Marketplace.

Raj Patel's THE VALUE OF NOTHING, an investigation by an activist and academic of why prices are always at odds with the value of things; how they never reflect hidden social and environmental costs and what impact free goods and services (be it Internet or healthcare) have on societies, to Philip Gwyn-Jones at Portobello Books, for publication in Fall 2009, by Karolina Sutton at Curtis Brown.

I went to the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair last weekend and just walked around, my mouth agape, at all the first editions of Dickens, Austen, Mailer, and more. I really enjoyed the display of Hubert Howe Bancroft's collected works on California. (The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley is named after him) They were stored in a specially-built cabinet for a mere $15,000.

Here's a close-up of the top of the cabinet:

Friday, February 13, 2009

Kathryn Ma wins the Iowa Short FIction Prize

Every once in a while, a talented writer gets a break that you know is going to bring them the critical attention their work deserves.

Such is the case with San Francisco writer Kathryn Ma. A former attorney-turned-full-time-writer, Ma’s short stories have been published in The Antioch Review, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Threepenny Review. Now Ma has won one of the most prestigious prizes of all – the Iowa Short Fiction award. It’s a contest where hundreds of writers from around the country submit their short story manuscripts and one is selected for publication.

Ma’s story collection, All That Work And Still No Boys, won the competition. It will be published by University of Iowa Press in October 2009. “In this collection, Ma’s sharply-observed stories expose the deepest fears and longings that we mask in family life and observe the long shadows cast by history and displacement,” according to the press release announcing Ma’s selection.

To make the award even more sweet, Ma’s manuscript was selected by Curtis Sittenfeld, the author of the critically acclaimed books Prep and American Wife. (It’s always nice when a well-respected author likes your work.) In 2008, Ma won the Meyerson Award for Fiction from the Southwest Review for the story that gives the title to her forthcoming book. The judge in that competition was Jim Shepard, the author of Like You Would Understand, Anyway: Stories.

Ma, whose parents emigrated from China, has three daughters and I think her book refers to Chinese tradition where boys are more prized than girls.

I have know Kathryn for a few years. We met in Geyserville, a small town north of Healdsburg in Sonoma County, where both our families have summer houses. We started talking because of our common interest in writing, and it’s a conversation that has never ended. We don’t see one another frequently, but when we do, we always dive right in to the world of books, writing, and publishing. Now there will be even more to talk about.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

John Jeter and The Plunder Room

John Jeter’s first novel, The Plunder Room, takes readers into the deep South, where they encounter Randol Duncan, a music critic who has just inherited a key to his grandfather’s room full of military treasures.

Unfortunately, Duncan is a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair and the valuables are locked in a room at the top of a set of stairs. As Duncan figures out a way how to gain entry in the room, he also unravels long-buried family secrets. The journey forces Duncan to examine questions of honor and valor and his family’s role in a proud Southern military tradition.

I met John Jeter in 1986, when we were both students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. What I noticed first was his sense of humor. It seemed like he couldn’t say a sentence that wasn’t laced with a joke and a smile. That levity and humor permeated his writing as well. Jeter went on to a long career as a journalist, but switched careers in mid-life. He is now the proprietor of The Handlebar, a nightclub in Greenville, S.C.. It’s an appropriate name since Jeter sports his own curly handlebar mustache.

Jeter wrote fiction for 20 years, but The Plunder Room is his first published book. Amazingly, he sold and published it without an agent -- something that is rare in today's cutthroat publishing world. Jeter explained to me how he accomplished his feat and the story behind the book:

How did you get the idea for The Plunder Room?

THE PLUNDER ROOM came to me in a flash, as, I think, we as a country were all thinking about the war in Iraq and the spiraling descent of the country and where we were heading. Like Frances, I got to thinking about my forebears, especially my grandfather, a true war hero and Southern gentlemen in the most courageous sense of the word. I began to wonder how we got from the virtues and valor of his generation to the pierced kids with their serious sense of entitlement who come to my concert venue, The Handlebar; how we could go from a “noble” war, World War II, to Vietnam and Iraq; how we could get from thinkers and doers like Roosevelt to George W. Bush. Then I got pissed off, which -- read Sidney Cox’s “Indirections, for those who want to write” -- is a great inspiration for storytelling. The story really exploded in my head in an instant when the protagonist’s name blasted in.

How long did it take to write?

Three months.

Why did you put your protagonist in a wheelchair? What kind of advantages and disadvantages does it give him?

If he weren’t in a wheelchair, the novel would’ve been two pages long, Randol would’ve raced up the stairs, and that would’ve been that. But, seriously, as the story and character developed, it turned out that his paraplegia also proved a valuable metaphor for his impotence, his inability to stand up to anyone or for anything, his numbness - plus all the emotional and physical pain he - and all of us - carry that made him that much more human … a burden he has to wheel around with him in addition to fulfilling his.

You have been a journalist and novelist. Did one career help the other? Did it hurt it? What journalistic skills did you bring to your fiction writing?

In moving from journalism to fiction, I got too hung up on facts and details, not knowing what to leave in what to leave out. In my first novel (of seven), at one point, I believed it crucial to know what the weather was in Saigon on a specific Wednesday on a particular day of a precise date. This was pre-Internet, so it took a long time to find out. Then I realized -- in fiction, that detail was unimportant. I could’ve either made it up or worked around it.

Journalism also prevented me from being “honest” with invented characters and vice versa. In journalism, every word you write down that somebody says must be 100% what they said, accurate. In fiction, you get to make that up, BUT, it must be TRUE to what the character would say. Breaking through that wall of KNOWING what an invented person “would say,” I found, is incredibly difficult when you’ve been trained to pay so much attention to what is REAL. Likewise, if you write about, say, a house - as I did in the novel - and you move furniture around or add a chimney in or on a house that actually existed - it feels really weird. You simply can’t do that in journalism. Facts and details are crucial to journalism, but need to be stitched into fiction in just such a way that journalism can actually hinder. Still, journalism taught me to write FAST. Writing a story on deadline is a blast, I love to get it done. Then, as they say in film, “fix it in post.”

When did you first grow your handlebar mustache? Does your wife like it? Have you ever shaved it off?

I grew my mustache when I was recuperating in a San Antonio hospital with my brother after he gave me his kidney in 1984; we had a post-operative facial-hair-growing contest. Mine grew into a handlebar. In 1994, we opened The Handlebar in honor of that. Now I’m stuck with a well-known-brand logo on my face. I’m not sure if my wife likes it, but she met me this way, and, well, it’s corporate, we’re business partners, we love being married, she edited my novel and made it great - and she’s incredible. My brother’s awesome, too.

You sold THE PLUNDER ROOM without an agent. How did you do that?

I've written seven, four of them incalculably bad and two that I'm fond of. Anyway, I had pitched one of my earlier novels over the transom at Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press. One of the editors there, Ruth Cavin, liked it, but not enough to publish it. So when I wrote another one, I sent it to her and she bought it.

So what was it about THE PLUNDER ROOM she liked?

It's a story that's about four generations of a Southern family - but I think Ruth realized it's not a Southern story, per se, it's a Southern-based allegory about the degeneration of the American character through those same four generations.

Starting from ... ?

The Greatest Generation through Generations Jones and X. I had attended my 20th reunion at Columbia University Journalism School, and had lunch with a classmate who dates his family back to 13th-century China. We started talking about the Chinese proverb that tells about the generation that plants the orchard, the next that enjoys the fruit and the shade, the next that cuts down the trees and so forth. As with all fiction, some redemption has to be in there, and I think THE PLUNDER ROOM's timing happens to be right because we're at the age where THIS generation, politically and socially, can redeem us from the generation that plundered the American orchard.

Isn't getting a book published without an agent sort of like winning the lottery?

Yes and no. I've been working toward publication since I was 6 years old. I have been writing since I was eating Cap'n Crunch, but wrote my first novel - the first of the hilariously bad ones - 20 years ago. Through all those years, after thousands of rejections, a nervous breakdown and no choice but to keep beating my head against the wall, I became an overnight success. That is, if you define success as a published author.

So, what's next?

Sales. Writing's easier.

In what sense?

Bear with me through some long-windedness here: I own a concert venue called The Handlebar in Greenville, SC, and we get 3,000 to 4,000 queries each year from artists, bands and agencies to fill 300 to 400 slots each year, including headlining and opening slots. I book all the talent.

We've had Joan Baez and John Mayer, John Hiatt, Tower of Power, Shinedown, David Sanborn, Pat Metheny, Bela Fleck, David Lindley -- 2,500 shows in 15 years. And my responsibility as Talent Buyer is to procure world-class talent who will help us sell as many tickets as possible so that my venue makes money. As "publisher" here, I have to say no to thousands of artists and bands, almost all of whom are incredibly talented -- but don't have to "marquee value" to put bodies in the building. Likewise, the publishing industry receives -- last I heard -- 3 million manuscripts a year for 50,000 books it prints each year, on an incredibly tight margin. And in a lot of ways, the industry's very much a cottage industry like mine. That is to say, they have to sell books like I have to sell tickets (and beer). So I now have to switch off my Artist bulb and switch on my Promoter light, full blast, and start promoting my novel.


Beats me, but I'm doing the very best I can. What's interesting is that because publishing houses, even the big ones, are a lot like The Handlebar, they do what we do. If we have a huge act -- say, John Hiatt or Joan Baez, those tickets are going to sell easily and sell quickly. Likewise, Barack Obama or Janet Evanovich have little trouble selling a bunch of books. The bulk of the house's marketing resources are going to go to the big guns, which, sure, it's ironic, will sell books without much effort. We at The Handlebar do the same thing, when it's the "developmental acts" that need the most promotional help. So, as a developmental act, as a writer, I know that I have to work my ass off to promote my book. I'm doing radio, TV, print, everything I can. I'm not all that good at the Web because I'm not a teenager, but I do love Facebook; the whole book-blog thing is mind-numbing to me in its sheer vastness.

What's next?

I still have those two other books I like and believe in and would like to see published. I should get back to writing, too, but a couple of issues stand in the way: the day job, which is sort of a night job, though it's mostly days, because I have to figure out how to sell tickets for the night club; and since I've been wearing my promoter hat these past two years -- both as music promoter and novel promoter, my Artistic Muse has decided to take a very long vacation without telling me when she plans on coming back.

Why don't you write nonfiction then, about The Handlebar or your kidney transplant nearly 25 years ago?

Because I don't have an agent, and I'm a little to close to both of those subjects -- even the transplant (my brother donated his kidney and it's not like I can take it out and get all clinical with it). Besides, I think it's better to leave nonfiction to the pros like Frances and try to lure my Muse back . . . somehow.

Do you believe that book sales and readers are vanishing?

No. On the contrary. I think economic doom and gloom, lack of money for travel, reeling in funds for expensive meals, etc., means folks will look for other forms of entertainment. TV and movies haven't historically been all that great and people are getting and want to get a lot smarter. Hence, books and other forms of reading -- even on the Internet. There's also this odd statistic I read, though probably outdated, from a couple of years ago, also from the Web: 85% of Americans said they hadn't read a book in the last year, but 85% of Americans either were writing a book or wanted to write one. After Harry Potter and the Twilight series and so many other amazing releases, I daresay more Americans have actually picked up a book in the last year or so. And if they're writing 'em, they should be reading 'em (though you'd be surprised).

Anything you want to add?

Yes. Buy books; they even make great household decor. Buy 'em by the bushel at LOCAL bookstores. And not just because it's about money, but because it's about culture and being smart and re-growing the American orchard. There was a most amazing post on Vermont Public Radio: about bookstores and community. Thing is, if artists are community and bookstores are community and consumers are community, aren't we all in the same ... community? Where does that put the Internet? Sure, it can help create community, but it doesn't serve coffee or help with face-to-face or the visceral experience of live readings and so forth. Our new president called for Community. That should go for the arts, too.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

PEN America West

As Paula S. Fass was growing up in Brooklyn, she only had one conversation with her mother about her parents’ murdered son. While they were sitting at the kitchen table one day, Fass worked up the courage to ask the name of her deceased brothers and sisters. Her mother paused, then asked her daughter why she needed the information. “For the future,” Fass replied.

Many decades later, after a lifetime of not knowing, Fass went on a search for the story of her siblings. (Her parents had both been married to other people before the war and had families who perished. They met after the war, had Fass, and came to the U.S). The fact that there was so much silence in her family about the Nazi genocide is a central theme in Fass’s new memoir, Inheriting the Holocaust: A Second Generation Memoir.

Many Holocaust survivors are now dead, but their children are finding that they, too, have been scarred by the genocide that took 6 million lives. Fass addresses how she has had to grapple with her “inherited memory.” While Fass did not suffer the deprivation and hardship of her parents, she grew up internalizing some of their pain. Their memories became her memories.

Paula Fass

I got a chance to meet Fass on Saturday Feb. 7 when she gave a presentation on her new book at a meeting of the Pen America Center West. Fass is a history professor at UC Berkeley and her main specialty is the Americas, particularly the history of childhood. For years Fass resisted writing the story of her parents, who each lost spouses and children in the Holocaust, but met in America and started anew. But the story haunted her, and she finally shifted gears to focus on her own history. The result is an evocative and moving memoir. Fass will be reading from her book at Black Oak Books in Berkeley on March 2.

I also got to read from Towers of Gold at the meeting of Pen America West. I have heard about this group for years and was pleased to finally attend a meeting. Pen America was founded in 1921 and defines itself as “an association of writers to advance literature, defend free expression, and foster international literary fellowship.” The presidents of the American chapter are among the most revered in literature: Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Salman Rushdie.The West Coast chapter was started in 1981 by the poet Robert Haas and ow holds about eight meetings a year.

The Northern California chapter is headed by Brenda Webster, a prolific author who has just come out with her 10th book, the novel Vienna Triangle. There were other well-known writers at the meeting, including the dynamic literary duo of Irving and Marilyn Yalom, the poet Dorothy Gilbert, the novelist and anthology editor Victoria Zackheim, Margret Schaefer, who translates the work of the Viennese author Arthur Schnitzler, and Maria Espinosa, whose new novel, Dying Unfinished, has just been released. There were also many emeritus professors from UC Berkeley in the room

The group appeared to be mostly in their 60s and 70s, reflecting writers who became active during the Cold War and Vietnam War era.

It’s not easy to become a member of Pen. You must have published two or more books, or one book which is of “exceptional literary merit,” which they define as having won a major national prize. No Johnny-come-lately flash in the pan authors here; just those who clearly are dedicating their lives to writing and scholarship.

But one can become an associate member, which garners many of the same privileges as a regular member, particularly for people who live on the West Coast. Recent writers who have read from their work include Sue Miller and Page Stegner.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Mysteries of the Bestseller List I was pleasantly pleased to discover that Towers of Gold made the bestseller list of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association this week. Towers of Gold was the #7 bestselling book for the week of January 25.

But I was puzzled, too, since the only event I did that week was at the private Metropolitan Club in San Francisco. I sold about 25 books after my talk, but the books all came from a nearby Borders, which is a chain store. So how did I end up on a list from independent booksellers?

What made this even more puzzling was the fact that when Towers of Gold was on the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list for three weeks in November and December, it wasn’t on the NCIBA list during that time. And I know I sold a lot of books at independent bookstores during that period. I did readings at Book Passage, Mrs. Dalloways, A Great Good Place for Books, Copperfields, Readers Books, Clayton Books and Stacey’s.

So I sent off an email to Hut Landon, the executive director of NCIBA. And what he told me was surprising.

The NCIBA list is based on reporting from more than fifty bookstores in the northern part of the state. That is considerably more than the Chronicle draws from. The NCIBA polls stores by ratings rather than numbers, so if a book is the third-best selling title in a a variety of stores, it would get that placement on the list.

The Chronicle, in contrast, from what I understand, ranks books according to the sheer number of titles sold in the bookstores it polls. This tends to tilt the list toward authors who are having events since groups come in to hear them and buy at one time.

Landon thinks the NCIBA list shows something different than the Chronicle list:

“Our method rewards titles that are selling in more stores, rather than one where an author has a couple of big events but doesn't sell much elsewhere. So making our list is sometimes harder, but the good news for you is that by making it at all you know that your book is selling "across the board", not just in a few stores.”

I did make another bestseller list – Kepler’s Books – this week, but this one I understand since I did a reading there on Jan. 27.

Of course the big mystery is the New York Times bestseller list and better minds than mine have tried to figure out how they calculate things. The way the list is classified is a trade secret.