Monday, May 25, 2009
The Petrocellis are in New York this week for Book Expo America, the huge books convention. They stopped by Harper Collins to have a chat.
Book Passage puts on about 700 author events in its two stores, one in San Francisco and one in Corte Madera. Elaine says the success of an author event has a great deal to do with how much publicity a book or author has received. She argues to publishers that it's better to send an author on tour a few weeks after a book launches, rather than right away, which is the common practice. That way reviews are out, twitter tweets are circulating, and buzz is building, so more people are apt to come to reading.
The Petrocellis also talk about the genesis of their various conferences -- a children's book conference and a mystery conference. They are thinking about adding a food writing conference.
Friday, May 22, 2009
San Francisco Magazine sent out a call Thursday for working writers to show up at the Coffee Bar on Mariposa Street for a photo shoot. The idea was to portray writers during a recession: there aren't any jobs so these people have plenty of time to peck away at their laptops during the day.
There were a few ironies at the photo shoot, including the premise, as many of those who came are bestselling, successful authors. At least one was downright rich. Robert Mailer Anderson, author of Boonville, is married to Nicola Miner, whose father was the co-founder of Oracle.
But the mood was festive and the dedication to the written work sincere.
The above picture was the first shot. I can't identify everyone but I will try. From far left is Carol Edgarian, co-editor of Narrative Magazine and the author of Rise the Euphrates. I don't know the guy next to her but then comes Jane Ganahl, Michelle Richmond and Peter Orner. They look like they are having fun. Then there is the hard-working Stephen Elliot. Is he posting something to his new Rumpus website? The man next to him is the actor Reed Kirk Rahlmann. I have never met him but I admired his decision to have a large goblet of red wine while he wrote.
As we all stood around trying to look casual as the photographers snapped our photos, we exchanged a lot of news. Here are some tidbits:
Mary Pols, the author of Accidentally On Purpose, just out in paperback, will see her book made into a TV series this year. Jenna Elfman is going to play a single mother who hooks up with a man 15 years her junior for a one-night stand. The result: an unexpected pregnacy.
I also met Jaimal Yogis, whose new memoir, Saltwater Buddha, about surfing, looks great. He is about to travel up the Pacific Coast, surf, do readings at local bookstores, and tweet about his travels. Allison Hoover Bartlett is gearing up for the release of her narrative, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. It comes out in September.
Others at the shoot: Andrew Foster Altschul, the books editor of the Rumpus, Peter Plate, Molly Antepol, Janis Cooke Newman, Andy Dugas, Eric Puchner, and more.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
When I was in elementary school I read George Stewart’s Ordeal by Hunger, then considered the definitive book about the Donner Party. I found it fascinating and macabre to learn about the ill-fated pioneers who got trapped by the Sierra snows in 1846 and were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive.
If I wanted to forget their story, I could not, for every time my family drove from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe (which we did a lot, for skiing or summer fun) we would drive past Donner Lake. The clear blue lake was named after that band of pioneers and although it was much smaller than its mighty lake neighbor to the east, it was still beautiful.
My education about the Donner party might have ended there except for Jim Houston’s wonderful novel Snow Mountain Passage. When it came out in 2001, both my husband and I gobbled it up. In lyrical prose, Houston describes the travails of the travelers, and the reader can almost imagine herself starving and desperate.
But then Ethan Rarick, a journalist I know and admire, came out in 2008 with Desperate Passage, a narrative account that incorporated new archeological research from the site where the settlers camped for four months, along with a new understanding of the effects of hunger and starvation. The New York Times gave it a stunning review, and I read it and began to recommend it to everyone I saw.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying I have unwittingly turned into a Donner Party junkie. I am currently reading The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown, and although I am just in the early chapters I can say with assurance this is a wonderful narrative by a wonderful writer.
So when I saw Bill Deverell’s LA Times review of the new book Searching for Tamsen Donner, which tells the story of one woman’s 35+ year quest to understand one of the woman pioneers, I knew I had to read the book. It is a most unusual Donner Party narrative, for rather than writing a narrative of the Donner’s cross-country journey, Gabrielle Burton takes her husband and five daughters on a road trip, visiting spots that Tamsen Donner lived in along the way. The catch? The road trip was in 1977, when Burton was trying to write a novel that touched, but did not focus, on Tamsen Donner. It has taken Burton a quarter century to come to terms with the meaning of that road trip – her thoughts about motherhood, how to combine her family life with her writing life, how to create a meaningful partnership with her husband when both were born in a era where men and women embraced traditional roles, and more. The result is part memoir, part historical recreation, part travelogue. (Oh, and by the way her novel on Tamsen Donner will be published in 2010.)
I wanted to find out more about Gabrielle Burton and her fascination with Tamsen Donner so I sent her some questions.
When did you start to become so fascinated by Tamsen Donner? Can you
describe how your initial interest grew into a sort of obsession?
I chanced upon her by accident in 1972 at Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, when a writer, William Lederer, said, "Last night, I dreamt you were going to write a book about people eating each other to survive." I had no idea what it meant, nor did he. Months later, I was writing a short story about a cross-country trip, and my husband was helping me with the geography. "You'd have to go over Donner Pass," he said. "What's that?" I asked. "You know," he said, "where they ate each other to survive." This was the first time I had ever heard of the Donner Party and, when I got out books on them, Tamsen Donner leapt off the page. My short story became a novel, a small fraction of it about Tamsen. After seven years and numerous rejections, I put it in a drawer, and started another novel, which took another 7 years to be published. In between numerous other projects, I found myself returning again and again to the mystery of Tamsen Donner.
Why are you so intrigued by her?
I never thought about this until a reader at U of Nebraska Press asked: What drew you to such a disturbing remote character? I was taken aback: Disturbing? Remote? News to me. When I considered the question, I came up with a lot of answers. In those early days in the women's movement, we were all searching for heroines--for ourselves and for our daughters--and Tamsen Donner was a remarkable woman. She had five daughters as I did and, although 2 of hers were stepdaughters, that parallel carried me quite a while. My Catholic upbringing had made me comfortable with gruesome martyr stories, thus the cannibalism and gore that typically predominate in stories about the Donner Party neither repelled nor intrigued me deeply. I've always been interested in survival stories, wondering how I would fare in a similar situation. In the early days of the women's movements, I felt that we--my "sisters," my family, and I--were pioneers, searching for new ways to work and love. The common representation of Tamsen as a "heroine" because she stayed with her husband until death did they part at the cost of her own life, rankled me and scared me because I was afraid that an authentic part of me, my writing, might be sacrificed to marriage and motherhood. In the beginning, because so little was known about Tamsen, she was a blank page I was trying to write my story on.
Which of her qualities do you admire most?
Endurance, because it's always based on hope--which, a famous Biblical line to the contrary, I think is the greatest virtue. Not only did she endure four and a half months trapped in the mountains, basically in an underground yurt with a dying husband and five children, she had already survived personal tragedy years before when her first husband, son, and prematurely born daughter died within a 3 month period. Her letters indicate that she suffered depression and came out of it. I admire enormously people who pick themselves up and not only survive, but prevail. She also was incredibly feisty. She was a woman who knew her worth.
Why do you think she decided to remain in the mountains with her husband
George Donner rather than walk to safety with her daughters?
No one knows these things. She was a woman of principle--she had taken vows. Her husband was dying--she loved him. To leave him to die alone in the mountains all by himself would have been a decision none of us would want to make or live with. Another rescue party was expected, but never came. My belief is that she always intended to get out, to join her daughters as soon as George died. Indeed, she started out, but never made it.
Your book details your journey from contented mother and housewife to
feminist who seeks her own professional path and a more equal arrangement
with your husband around child rearing and housekeeping. Yet you are
intrigued by Donner, who lived in a different era with such different
expectations. What parallels did you find between your lives?
I was never a contented mother and housewife. I was quite miserable, but until the women's movement came along I thought it was my own failure as a "real woman" and I kept it to myself. My husband jokes that I completely misrepresented myself, and he's absolutely right: I pretended to him, the world, and myself that all I wanted was to be a wife and mother. My first book, I'm Running Away From Home But I'm Not Allowed to Cross the Street, is about how the women's movement gave me hope and voice, and the subsequent changes in our family and ourselves.
Other than the qualities mentioned above that drew me to Tamsen, she was a woman who had adventure along with being a wife and mothering five children. Discovering her when I was already married, had five children, and decided I wanted to write, she seemed like a terrific role model.
Why did your book take 27 years to finish? You went on your trip to retrace
the steps of the Donner Party thinking you would be writing a novel that
included Tamsen Donner. At what point, and why, did you decide to write a
It took 27 years because I continually put it aside for other things. I would say that at least 3 different women wrote that book. One of those women was afraid that if she wrote about her wonderful family, some terrible thing would happen that would disprove her. Mostly, life intervened.
I took out a draft in 2006, horrified to see that the last notes I had received on the ms. were in 1988. I thought, Well, I can sit around kicking myself for the years gone by, but face it, nobody cares about this but me. A huge motivation was to see Tamsen's seventeen extant letters in print. Searching for TD went to 19 agents before U of Nebraska. I had told my husband, If no one ever publishes this book, I'm going to publish a booklet of her letters and drive to the Donner Museum to get them to sell it.
I didn't set out to write a memoir, but just to tell the story of our trip and what Tamsen Donner meant to our family. I still don't think of it as a memoir, though I suppose it is in an offbeat way.
I did write a novel about Tamsen, Impatient With Desire--not at all like that apprentice novel of so many years ago--which will be published by Hyperion, Winter, 2010.
Three books have come out about the Donner Party since Jan. 2008. The event
took place in 1846 more than 140 years ago. Why is America still fascinated
by their experiences?
Tamsen Donner, mythical herself, was part of our great American myth: The Overland migration that expanded the U.S. from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The migration lasted only 20 years, but the pioneers in their covered wagons on the Oregon and California Trails live deep in our self-image and our dreams. Picking up stakes and "moving West" embodies all that we Americans love to think forms our national character--exploration, quest, adventure, unbridled optimism, romance, heroism, wide open spaces, bigness, boldness, epic. It also contains other parts we don't claim as readily--sexism, racism, abandonment of the old, theft of land, violent displacement of peoples, murder, and of course cannibalism. The Donner Party's trip West seeking a better life is the American dream gone sour. It's a timeless story, still a mystery, cautionary tale, and challenge.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
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On Tuesday, a new on-line publishing company entered the e-book business in a serious way.
Readers are already buying books for the Amazon Kindle or Sony E-Reader,
but Scribd has a different business model.It allows authors to post their books on their site
and charge whatever they think the market will bear.With 60 million visitors a month, that could
add up to a lot of pennies. But publishing on Scribd ratherthan going through a traditional
publisher means a writer gives up many of the perks associatedwith putting out a
traditional book: the prestige of being selected by a well-know publisher, distribution
in book stores, and probably book reviews in newspapers. I asked Kemble Scott,
the best-selling authorof SoMa, a novel, why he is publishing his new novel Sower
on Scribd. It costs $2.
Why did you decide to publish your second novel on Scribd?
The world is changing and people are experiencing books in new ways. Amazon says its digital books now account for 35% of recent titles sold. In
I read recently that people who read on-line literature are much more likely to become avid readers. It kindles a passion for reading, and they end up buying books and going to libraries. That's very exciting.
As an author, publishing my first edition of The Sower on Scribd gave me the opportunity to try something brand new with a book: immediacy.
In traditional print publishing, a book is typically done months or years in advance. Then like an airplane that must queue for its turn to land, a book waits for its spot in the publishing cycle. As a result, you can't really write a book that's set in the present. As a novelist, you end up writing a period piece.
The Sower is set in a fictionalized version of the present. It taps into the current national mood. We're fed up with corporate greed, damaging right wing ideologies, and hate-mongering religious agendas. We're living with the fallout of eight years of that crap.
When I wrote The Sower, all of that was on my mind. The novel is ultimately a darkly comic commentary about the moral hypocrisy of the past eight years. With traditional print publishing, I'd have to wait a year or so to get The Sower to readers. Would the national mood be the same then? Would we still be in a recession? Would we still despise George W.?
With my first novel SoMa, I was the first author to launch a novel on YouTube I did these very earnest, black and white videos that took people to the real life places that inspired the novel. Since the novel is set in
So I'm open to the idea of trying something new to launch a book. The Sower will be promoted on Scribd to its 60 million readers. That's more than twice the size of the audience of American Idol. Novelists don't usually get that type of platform.
Your last book, SoMa, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller and finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. You are a former television producer and journalist. The publication of Sower on Scribd carries none of the prestige or weight of your previous endeavors. Does this concern you? Is Scribd's really just a new-fangled vanity press?
I love being appreciated as much as the next guy. But you've got to have a thick skin to write fiction. If you care too much about “prestige” then you're going to be terribly wounded by the hecklers who inevitably emerge. I write provocative books, and I expect them to be polarizing. Prestige is the last thing on my mind.
As you know, "vanity press" is an insult used by people in the publishing trade to describe books that people publish on their own because no one else wants them. The truth is The Sower received what's called a “pre-empt” offer. The first publisher to read it immediately offered to buy it (he got a copy of my manuscript from a very enthusiastic author who read it for a blurb). It was such a surprise to get that call unsolicited, and really flattering, especially since I had not done the submissions process. The publisher was convinced The Sower would be the first book to go “viral” because of certain twisted ideas and scenes involving the Catholic Church and the president of the
But that deal eventually fell apart. The delay meant I couldn't start the submissions process until earlier this year. As fate would have it, that's when the Scribd project emerged. I had to make a decision.
I wish I could say it was difficult. It wasn't. That's because I see The Sower on Scribd as the first edition. I have retained all rights. I can sell hardcover, paperback, foreign language, audio, other media, Kindle, etc.
The print door isn't closed to me. To the contrary, it may be open wider than ever. If Scribd creates new buzz for my work, then I suspect there's at least one print publisher who will sense an opportunity. Let's face it, it's so difficult to get people talking about a novel. That's the hard part in this age of information overload. Hardcover, paperback, digital, audio - those are simply different readerships. I'm enthusiastic about all of them.
Your cover illustration is eye catching. Does Scribd's help authors with art or layout? How about editing? All books can be improved by editing. Did you skip the process or find your own editor?
I'm glad you like the cover. I came up with it myself. Because this first edition is on Scribd, there was no print book cover to leverage. The title The Sower is derived from The Parable of the Sower from the Bible. That's a lesson about a guy who's thwarted trying to plant seeds for growing crops. The novel The Sower is about a guy who becomes the sole carrier of a manmade supervirus that appears to be a cure for all diseases, and the only way to pass it to others is through sex. Translation: planting his seed. Oh, and he's very thwarted. So I knew I wanted to use the metaphor of seeds, so I got piles of different types of seeds, bought some colorful paper backdrops, and shot pictures with my cheap digital camera. I also did a version with bright white seeds and a red background, but that looked just a little too dead on like a guy's seed… if you know what I mean.
Authors always complain about their covers. It's like a rite of passage when being published. With Scribd you are completely on your own. I decided to have fun with it, and by taking the photo myself I own the copyright 100%, which you must have if you publish on Scribd.
As far as editing is concerned, I'm part of a dynamic community of writers. I host a writers group, and attend the San Francisco Writers Workshop I also have an office in the Sanchez Annex , a writers “grotto.” Ten of us share a workspace. Combine all that and it's fair to say that every word of The Sower has received more editorial scrutiny than most books ever get. It's no coincidence that so many successful, published books have emerged from our little home-grown process.
How long was the lag time between finishing SoMa and publication?
SoMa is set in
How long was the lag time between finishing The Sower and publication?
There's a great story I tell at the very end of the novel about how The Sower was written. I won't ruin it by spilling the beans here.
But because of the immediacy offered by publishing with Scribd, and my desire to make my version of present day feel as current as possible, I was able to make changes to the book so it's as topical as today's newspaper. The first edition has references to swine flu, British singing sensation Susan Boyle, and TheDailyBeast.com.
So the time between finishing that additional writing and publication was, I dunno, maybe three minutes. How's that for fast?
And keep in mind that as an electronic book, I have the option to go in at any time and update cultural references so they are constantly timely.
Friday, May 15, 2009
"I believe I encountered every obstacle possible along the way. The Imperial archives closed in 2005, making it extremely difficult to get important documents. (They still haven’t reopened.) Many other relevant archives either could not be found or no longer exist. There was a dearth of information available about Smirnov’s early years as a serf. Conflicting accounts of specific events could sometimes not be verified one way or another.
And then there were Smirnov’s descendants, some of whom had already written books in Russia about their legacy. They were extremely reluctant to participate in my book. From the start, they questioned my motives and journalistic independence, assuming I was somehow tied to the company that now owns the Smirnoff brand. "
Read the essay here.
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman were invited to the White House to participate in its first-ever poetry jam. And this was just as Waldman's new book, Bad Mother, was coming out. She appeared on the Today Show, Fresh Air, and many other places. A busy woman.
Bookstores around the Bay Area will be celebrating Kids Otter Read Day Around the Bay. It's a regional celebration organized by the Northern California Children's Bookseller Association.
Here's a list of where the 55 authors will be reading. Bring your child to one of these independents:
4100 Macarthur Blvd., Oakland
1378 Lincoln Ave., San Jose
BOOKS INC, PALO ALTO
Town and Country Village
Dorina Lazo Gilmore
Susan Taylor Brown
BOOKS INC, ALAMEDA
1344 Park St.
Daniel San Souci
BOOKS INC In the MARINA
2251 Chestnut St., SF
Elissa Haden Guest
30 Lafayette Circle, Lafayette
5433-D Clayton Rd.
Deborah Lee Rose
COVER TO COVER
1307 Castro St., SF
Robert San Souci
TOWNE CENTER BOOKS
555 Main St., Pleasanton
Ying Chang Compestine
Clarissa Yu Shen
3900A Bel Aire Plaza, Napa
Marsha Diane Arnold
170 State St., Los Altos
51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera
Thursday, May 14, 2009
But the news has turned out to be strangely good for authors and other artists.
That's because many former Chron reporters are now freelancing pieces for the paper, and lots of these stories feature artists.
It's understandable because a reporter can turn around a short profile in a day and when one is getting paid freelance rates ($250 a story?) speed and ease are important. More complex trend pieces take longer but are compensated at the same rate.
There have been at least four major profiles of Bay Area authors in just the past week. They include:
Steve Rubenstein wrote about Andy Raskin, the author of The Ramen King and I.
Heidi Benson wrote about Susan Cohen and Christine Cosgrove, who wrote a book about the use and misuse of growth hormones on children in Normal at Any Cost.
Edward Guthmann wrote about gay men and the divas they love, a book edited by Michael Montlack.
Regan McMahon wrote about Ayelet Waldman and her new memoir Bad Mother.
John McMurtrie, the editor of the book review, also penned an interview recently with Andrew Sean Greer.
This is definitely a huge increase from the period before the layoffs.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
How well I remember those biting words. They came from the mouth of Dana Goodyear, a New Yorker writer and editor. She delivered them in 2006 during a conference for freelance writers at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism.
The words stung because they suggested that to write for the New Yorker, you must be such a monumental talent that your glorious prose, captured in some lesser place like Harper's or the Ladies Home Journal, or on a website, was so spectacular that it attracted the attention of a New Yorker editor who just happened to be looking at that site.
The irony of those words is that Goodyear only started writing for the New Yorker because she served as editorial assistant to David Remnick, the magazine's editor, for three years. Her close proximity to the top helped her get noticed.
Well, the sacred walls of the esteemed weekly are being peeled back this week. In a series of tweets, former New Yorker author Dan Baum is revealing how he got hired to write for the magazine (he had been a freelancer for 17 years and had sent in numerous queries) and how he got fired in 2007.
A few of his revelations:
The New Yorker never sends rejections. It just ignores your queries. (This was not my experience. The first time I pitched an article to the New Yorker, way back in 1987, its editor Robert Gottlieb sent me a hand-written rejection. Unfortunately the note burned up when my house burned down in 1991.)
The term "staff writer" is misleading. All the writers on the magazine are contract employees. They don't get health benefits or contributions made to their 401Ks. And every September, their contracts come up for a review.
Baum got a little more than $1 a word for his first piece. At the time, Rolling Stone was paying him about $3.45 a word.
Baum was offered a staff writer position moments after Rolling Stone magazine offered to pay him $90,000 for a lengthy article on missile defense systems.
Baum, who went on to write the well-regarded book about New Orleans and Katrina called Nine Lives, also has a website where he displays the queries he sent to various magazines and the resulting articles or rejection letters.
Another interesting note: Baum lives in Watsonville, CA, hardly one of the country's hot spots. But it does show a good writer can prosper from anywhere.
You can follow Dan's tale on Twitter.
Thursday, May 07, 2009
Update: I have removed the names of those laid off by request. However, I want to note that those who were laid off should not regard it as a dark mark against their reputations. They were fine reporters, merely caught in a changing industry and a declining economy.
The article continued...
A few of these reporters were sent home today; a few were told they had jobs until August. This latter group also learned that they if they left before then, they would not get a severance payment.
There has been a substantial change in the Chronicle in the last month with the exit of more than 100 reporters and editors. The paper is very thin and most articles are short. The paper is still managing to do some good reporting, but those articles are piled onto the front page . When you open the Bay Area section, there is barely anything there.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Posting has been really light on Ghost Word ever since my book was released in November. I have found myself juggling so many balls -- promoting my book, talking to readers, setting up events, traveling, mothering my children, serving on two non-profit boards, blogging here at and at the San Francisco Chronicle, trying -- in vain -- to figure out Twitter, searching for a new book topic, etc etc. Sounds like a typical average American woman.
It's been a great five months and I am thrilled that Towers of Gold has been well-received. The best part of the experience has been hearing that people found the book informative and a good read.
I got an email from a cousin today and I can't believe what she said:
"Recently a dear cousin passed away from pancreatic cancer. Just 10 days before he died I decided he might enjoy either having read to him or reading Towers of Gold. Eric was the chronicler of our family history and with his passing goes a wealth of information some of which was documented.
He called me just before he died to say how touched and moved he was by your book, how pleased he was to have lived long enough to read it and see Obama elected. Not bad company eh
I thought you would appreciate hearing this as it IS these small things that make doing what we do resonate."
An email like that puts everything in perspective. The writing and research of a book is the work that grounds a writer; the marketing is the part that drives a writer crazy. So it was nice to be told that my book entertained someone in his last days and that he found it valuable and interesting enough to spend his limited time with it.
I started this post to say I was going to take a break, but as usual I can't say no to anything. But I just wanted to explain my sparse posts.