Friday, April 27, 2007

Michael Chabon's Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Michael Chabon is widely considered one of the best fiction writers in America today. And one of the things I appreciate about him is his honestly about how difficult it is to write.

His books may have won Pulitzer Prizes and been made into movies, but all that fame and glory doesn’t make it any easier to turn out a good novel. Chabon’s newest book, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, will come out next week. It’s more than a year later than originally expected – because Chabon did a whole rewrite.

Chabon had turned his book into his publisher, HarperCollins. Blurbs on the book led the publisher’s catalogue. But then Chabon’s editor yelled “Stop!” The book wasn’t ready. Chabon went back to work.

"I shudder now when I think that I would have published the old draft," said Chabon in a Wall Street Journal article.

"Over the following drafts, Mr. Chabon's editor, Courtney Hodell, would mail manuscripts overnight from New York to Mr. Chabon's Berkeley, Calif., office with detailed notes penciled in the margins. (Mr. Chabon describes them half-jokingly as "vandalized.") After HarperCollins's 2005 decision to delay publication, Ms. Hodell flew to Berkeley and spent the day with Mr. Chabon. They ordered sandwiches and went through the manuscript page by page. "He's a writer of terrific extravagance in the language but great subtlety on the emotional side," says Ms. Hodell. "A lot of what I was doing was coaxing him to come a little closer to the reader."

In the publishing world, it is rare to get this much attention. Many writers barely get edited by their publishers. But HarperCollins paid at least a million dollars for this book, so they put in the effort to make sure it was good.

Despite the back story, Chabon’s efforts should encourage all writers, experienced or aspiring. The essence of good writing is rewriting. Period. Even when you have already won a Pulitzer.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Going Green the Girly Way

I’ve been noticing a strange confluence in the publishing world: chick lit meets the environment.

With growing awareness of global warming, it’s no surprise that publishers have been snapping up books that talk about melting ice caps and tumultuous weather. Since January, however, there seems to be a small trendlet developing, a female-oriented view into our planet. Take these deals posted at Publishers’ Marketplace:

Jan 5 2007

Lisa Sharkey's LIVING GREEN, introducing stylish and sophisticated eco-friendly homes -- including the New York City brownstone that Sharkey and her architect husband Paul Gleicher renovated green -- and provide a resource section for inspiration and direction on going green, to Amy Pierpont at Clarkson Potter, by Larry Kirshbaum at LJK Literary Management (World).

February 27, 2007

Biologist Sally Kneidel's GOING GREEN: The Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet, providing information about how consumer choices about transportation, diet, heating and cooling, clothing, landscaping, wood and paper consumption, and more affect the environment and global laborers, to Sam Scinta at Fulcrum, for publication in spring 2008, by Sally Hill McMillan (world English).

March 5 2007

Author of Save Our Planet and public speaker Diane MacEachern's BIG GREEN PURSE: How Millions of Women Can Shop Their Way to a Cleaner, Greener World, a spirited consumer guide to environmentally-friendly products, arguing that using the "power of their purse" to shift spending to green products and services can have an enormous impact, to Lucia Watson at Avery, by Gail Ross of the Gail Ross Literary Agency (NA).

April 10 2007

LA-based Sophie Uliano's GORGEOUSLY GREEN: A Girlfriend's Eight-Week Guide to Earth-Friendly Living, a guide to healthier products and lifestyle choices for chic women who want to look and feel fabulous with sustainable style, to Collins, by Scott Waxman of Waxman Literary Agency.

April 23 2007

Journalist Lucy Siegle's TO DIE FOR, an expose of the environmental devastation and human rights violations of the fashion industry and how we can change our shopping habits to enjoy our clothes with a clear conscience, to Rachel Kahan at Putnam, in a good deal, in a pre-empt, by Emma Parry at Fletcher & Parry, on behalf of Araminta Whitley at Lucas Alexander Whitley (NA).

25 April, 2007

Lifestyle Environmental reporter and blogger Starre Vartan's THE ECO CHICK GUIDE TO LIFE: How to Be Fabulously Green, on how to join the new demographic of women who are living fabulously and sustainably, with tips on food, parties, sex, household, grooming, clothing, and more, to Sheila Curry Oakes at St. Martin's, at auction, by Mary Ann Naples at The Creative Culture (NA).

Another Glimpse of Halberstam's Last Days

The author Connie Hale was one of the organizers of the Berkeley Journalism conference that brought David Halberstam out to California to speak. She spent Friday night with him and reflects on his mood, his thoughts, and the delicious food he ate.

I spent the better part of Friday afternoon and evening with him, and here are some of the reminiscences from that experience:

"I was deeply affected by Halberstam on Friday (I had picked him up at the airport and was his chauffeur that evening as a group of us took him to dinner). I'm not sure I ever met someone whom I would call such a prodigious intellect. He was also deeply cultured, talking with equal ease about Breaker Morant, Barak Obama, New York theater, jazz, and his favorite dinner of angel hair pasta with cherry tomatoes. Beyond that he was generous with his attentions and his resources. We spent almost the entire ride from SFO to the faculty club talking about the Korean War and my uncle who died there; he had promised to help me track down men who fought with him.

But I was also affected deeply because he is the exact age of my parents.

My father died six years ago, and was also a man of ranging intellect and understanding--as well as a veteran of Vietnam and a career Army officer.

(David and I talked about him, too.) I keep thinking that having David in the passenger seat was like having Dad there again with me. Dad would be this age, Dad's skin would have those same speckles, Dad would have used that phrase. Therefore, I was aware of David's frailty (he also spoke of his age and its affect on his memory as well as his heart attack last October; he seemed to be candid about everything) and found myself being slightly protective of him, as I would my father. I even stood watch by his blue canvas bag after the lecture, fearing he might forget it there under the seat. (Indeed he called me first thing Sunday morning when he realized he'd forgotten it, later, in Orville's car.)

So the tragedy of his death hit me at a deep, intimate level. I feel
profound sorrow for his wife, whom he seemed to insert into every third
sentence, the lucky woman, and for his daughter, who is only 26.

My last thoughts are that he lived well into his 73rd year. He had a three course meal at Oliveto on Friday night, ordering four glasses of wine and rhubarb tart with ice cream, while explaining how his blood thinning medicine, not his wife, was the occasion for his "black eye." And, rather than resting on his laurels (the galleys of a book sent back Thursday, speeches on Saturday and Monday nights at Berkeley) he was determined to do this interview for his next book. He couldn't stop."

Monday, April 23, 2007

David Halberstam Killed in Car Accident

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I was driving around on my afternoon carpool duties when I heard that David Halberstam had been killed this morning in a car accident near the Dumbarton Bridge. Apparently, he was a passenger in a car driven by a student from the Berkeley School of Journalism, where he spoke Saturday night.

I am so shocked and saddened that Halberstam died this way, before his time. On Saturday he spoke enthusiastically about his forthcoming book on the Korean War. He said he had just signed a contract for two more books. He loved his work so much.

“It gets to be more fun the more you do it,” he told the audience at his last lecture.

After the lecture, Halberstam went to Chez Panisse with a group from the journalism school. The group talkedso long they shut the restaurant down, according to Orville Schell, the dean of the school and his host for the evening.

"No one wanted to leave," Schell told the Mercury News. `It was kind of like the last supper."

Halberstam covered Vietnam, which he characterized as a fiasco, and intimated that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake of even greater proportions. He recommended to the young journalists at the speech to watch the great war film, “The Battle of Algiers.” I have never seen it, but now I will make a point to rent it.

Here is the New York Times story on his death, and here is the Chronicle’s. Here’s an interview with him.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Where History and Journalism Meet

I spent Saturday at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism for a conference called Reconstructing the Past: When History and Journalism Meet. Narrative non-fiction is one of the most popular genres today, but many historians look down upon the notion that great events must be crafted into a compelling narrative and many journalists are disdainful that too many history books are dull and dry.
The conference was an attempt to meld the two worlds by talking about how to craft a story in an accurate, yet exciting way. The Israeli journalist Tom Segev observed that journalists usually write about the exceptional, the event out of the ordinary, while historians write about the every day, or what is common to a time or place. Regardless of the approach, both fields share the assumption that by going back to the past, we will understand something about the present.
The keynote speaker was David Halberstam, who at 73 is about to come out with his 21st book, The Longest Winter, about the Korean War. He started his journalistic training as a young reporter in Tennessee, where he covered the Civil Rights movement, eventually moving to The New York Times. After two tours covering the war in Vietnam, Halberstam said he realized that while he had won prizes for his reporting, he had never revealed the causes of the war. He quit the Times and spent three years writing The Best and The Brightest, about the men who led the U.S. into war with Vietnam. He regards the journalist/historian as one of the best jobs in the world.
“This is the great gift you get from this life,” Halberstam told at crowd at the Haas School of Business. “You get a chance to be paid and be literate. You get a chance to go out every day and ask questions and come back with a little more knowledge.”
While Halberstam is a master of this craft, most of the conference participants, while accomplished journalists, are still learning how to transform themselves from reporters to historians. There were a number of how-to workshops, including one I taught with the Mark Andre Singer, a librarian from the Mechanics Institute, on using the “deep web” to get information. It was essentially a lesson on how to access databases and historical archives from your computer.
Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree, and Mirja Orito, author of Finding Manana, talked about the rewards and perils of interviewing witnesses to events long past. Jason Roberts, author of A Sense of the World, Millicent Dillon, who has published 10 books, and Spencer Ante, the editor of Business Week, talked about how to bring historical characters to life. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Seth Rosenfeld and Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive talked about using government documents. Rebecca Solnit and Adam Hochschild talked about their numerous books as well. You can see details of the conference here.
What made this workshop remarkable was that it was geared toward mid-career journalists. While a number of reporters go to journalism school, the vast majority learn on the job and never receive any formal training. Learning as you go has its benefits, but it is wonderful to get a little training, too.
You could feel the buzz in the room as people spoke. I spotted Julia Flynn Siler, author of the forthcoming House of Mondavi, Ilana DeBare, author of Where Girls Come First, Kate Braverman, author of the acclaimed memoir, Lithium for Medea, Scott Martelle, a Los Angeles Times reporter whose book Blood Passion, about the Ludlow massacre, will be out in August, and many others.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Cautionary Tale

California Authors caught this strange and troubling juxtaposition: the former owner of Cody’s Books, Andy Ross, is selling his home because of the losses he sustained in opening a San Francisco branch. That Cody’s on Stockton Street will close this week.

Meanwhile, Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos has just purchased a $30 million estate in Beverly Hills. His new home is 12,000 square feet and has seven bedrooms and seven bathrooms.

Fred and Pat Cody started their store in 1956. Bezos started Amazon in 1994.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Chiori Santiago

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I just heard the very sad news that Bay Area author Chiori Santiago passed away on Saturday. She had been suffering from kidney cancer.

Chiori was an amazing woman -- spirited, fiesty in the best sense of the word and determined to make her community a better place. Every conversation was full of laughs. She delighted in people, their strengths and their foibles. I got to know her through work we did together at Park Day School. Our children were not in the same grades but we were friendly nonetheless.

Chiori was a freelance writer who wrote articles, poems, and books. I loved her children's book, Home to Medicine Mountain, the true story of two boys who escape from an Indian boarding school in the 1930s. It was an engaging book for children that illustrated how hope can prevail in the face of racism and injustice. It won all sorts of awards.

You can read more of Chiori's work here.

New Releases

Congratulations are in order for Michelle Richmond, who sold the film rights for her new novel, The Year of Fog. Publisher’s Weekly reports how the deal got done:

"It's a good thing P. Jennifer Dana is a magnanimous loser. After Ron Howard's Imagine outbid her for the film rights to Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children (Knopf, 2006), the Andrew Lauren Productions president met with Messud's agent Anne Borchardt when she came to New York on business. Over lunch, Borchardt mentioned a book her daughter Valerie Borchardt had sold, Michelle Richmond's The Year of Fog (Delacorte, Mar.). Dana instantly fell in love with the novel—about a photographer's quest to find out how her fiancé's daughter vanished from a San Francisco beach—and showed it to Semi Chellas, the screenwriter she had been eyeing for Emperor. Chellas's take convinced partner Newmarket to pony up a nice five-figure option (small change to the distributor of The Passion of the Christ)."

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Regan McMohan had an excerpt of her new book in Sunday’s magazine. Her initial article on the high cost to families of kids’ sports originally appeared in the magazine and led to a book deal. Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports comes out this week.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sunday Musings

Since I just returned from Joshua Tree, I was pleasantly surprised to find this essay on the place and its role in the imagination from Deanna Stillman, the author of Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, and Joshua Tree: Desolation Tango.

Here's an excerpt:"

I started skipping dinner parties, openings, reordering my life. Joshua Tree National Park had become my church, my temple, my Stouffer’s frozen turkey tetrazzini. Week after week I would leave Los Angeles, the Xerox machine of America’s dreams, and head for the Mojave, where they all started. I felt at home in this vast space where, if you happened to be near the right dune at the right time, you might stumble across a cosmic joke in the form of a shamanic workshop at the corner of Highway 111 and Bob Hope Drive, a biker with a used bookstore and an espresso machine (more on this later), a cosmetic epiphany in the form of a shack that peddles thigh cream next to an earthquake sinkhole, or endless miracles of nature such as the reclusive desert frogs that leap out of the sands after a rainstorm.”

The combined book review and opinion sections of the LA Times debuts today and David Ullin, its book editor, makes a game attempt to show that the experiment will put more, rather than less, book news in the paper. Something about new online columns and such.

With the news about the shuttering of Cody’s San Francisco, the Chronicle publishes an editorial lamenting the decline of idiosyncratic, neighborhood-friendly bookstores.

Los Angeles Times reporter Anna Gorman writes a moving piece about discovering she carries the BRAC1 gene that predisposes her to cancer. After her father, grandmother, and aunt die of cancer, Gorman makes the difficult decision to take out her ovaries.

Last but not least, Michelle Chihara writes for n+1 about casting the reality television show “I’m From Rolling Stone.” It turns out that the good writers didn’t do so well on camera. (via FishbowlLA)

"We did get applications from many, many good writers, even great writers. We interviewed every single one of them. I swear to you. When we were really impressed or even a little impressed by the writing, we went for the next step. We were prepared to have a talented and charismatic and truly funny-looking cast. (Good writers, it turns out, tend toward the funny-looking.)

Here are some of the other problems we had with really good writers:

(1) They hated being on camera. Many spent the interview inspecting their shoelaces, avoiding eye contact, or giving one-word answers.

(2) They hated the idea of reality TV so much we spent most of the interview fielding hostile attacks. We would ask things like, “So . . . what are you listening to these days?” and they would snap back, “Why? Who are you trying to make me into? What do you want from me?”

(3) They backed out after they sat down and thought about being filmed. They looked that amount of intrusion and exposure straight in the eye, and said no."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

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I've just come back from five days at Joshua Tree National Monument. I hadn't been there since high school and had forgotten what a wonderful place it is. There is something about the desert air, the sun baking on the rocks, and the wild shapes of the prehistoric trees that is uplifting. I left the Bay Area a complete grouch, saddled by work and a feeling of helplessness. I've returned, still saddled with lots of work, but feeling much more optimistic.

I drove back with some friends and we made a lunch stop in Tehachipi, a small town perched on the summit of the Tehachipi Mountains, which divide the Central Valley from the desert. I wanted to stop there to see if I could get any more information on a terrible train wreck that happened in 1883. The train, carrying the former California Governor John Downey and his wife and many others, derailed near the summit, burning Downey's wife and dozens of others to death. It's a scene in my book as it graphically shows the negative impact of the railroad.

Well, no one in wind-whipped Tehachipi had ever heard of this disaster. A waitress at Kelsey's Restaurant, where the walls are lined with old photographs, told me the local historian had Alzheimer's and wouldn't be much help. The local train shop was closed, as was the museum.

So there I was, buzzing with my love of history, looking all around for clues, but turning up nothing. I get so jazzed by this kind of stuff that I ignore everything else. But I saw how history can be contagious. My friends joined in the hunt, thumbing through local history books. They didn't turn up anything, prompting one of them to make fun of me, and to suggest that this 1883 train accident never happened and that I was writing "fiction."
As we left the town, a tumbleweed flew across our path.

It seemed like a perfect metaphor for the West.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Friday Musings

Well, the rumors were true. Cody’s Books in San Francisco is closing. The Chronicle has the news. It’s bad enough that the city’s downtown can’t support a bookstore, but it looks like one-time owner Andy Ross will have to sell his house to cover some of the debt. Cody’s on Fourth Street in Berkeley will remain open, however.

Edward Guthmann profiled San Francisco mystery writer Cara Black, who writes books with a half-French, half-American protagonist. I love these books as each one feels like a brief visit to Paris.

The Gawker provides a complete rundown on the comings and goings of the staff of The New Yorker. Its surprising conclusion? That many of the editors now regarded as starts were hired by the much-maligned Tina Brown.

Author Susan Ito brought my attention to this amazing book delivery service in Kenya. People living in rural regions get books brought to them by CAMELS. Lots of authors have donated books or funds to this otherworldly service.

Masha Hamilton’s novel,The Camel Bookmobile, has just been released, and according to Ito, is getting great reviews. Hamilton, a former Middle East and Russia correspondent, will be in the Bay Area from April 27 to April 30.

I haven’t seen the book yet, but find the concept of a camel bookmobile so appealing.

Monday, April 02, 2007

More and More Writing Guides

Two interesting Bay Area book deals from Publisher’s Marketplace:

The 826 Valencia writing centers' first 826 VALENCIA GUIDES, one on writing memoir, edited by Jenny Traig, with an introduction by Dave Eggers, and contributions from AnthonySwofford, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jonathan Ames, Phillip Lopate, Tobias Wolff, and others, and the second on writing fiction, to Sarah Knight at Holt, at auction, by Ted Weinstein at Ted Weinstein Literary Management (NA).

Dave Eggers is expanding his brand into writing books. This is a smart move, for there is a huge market for writing books. I should know, since I am an addict. I bought two this past weekend: Ariel Gore’s How To Become A Famous Writer Before You’re Dead, and Telling True Stories, a NonFiction Writers’ Guide from the Neiman Foundation at Harvard University.

Gore’s guide is laugh-out loud funny and full of practical tips on how to push yourself. Her sections include “Give Yourself a Lit Star Makeover,” and “Become a Brazen Self-Promoter.” The Harvard guide is trading on the name of the Neiman Narrative Conference, one of the country’s only conferences devoted to the craft of journalistic nonfiction. It talks about narrative structure and pacing, creating character, and other tips to bring nonfiction to life.

In another deal:

NPR talk-show host Michael Krasny's OFF MIKE: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life, describing growing up tough in Cleveland, discovering literature, and becoming instead radio personality who has perhaps interviewed as many writers as anyone -- with reflections on author encounters from Saul Bellow and Salman Rushdie to Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker, to Alan Harvey at Stanford University Press, in a pre-empt, by Amy Rennert at the Amy Rennert Agency.

Very Funny

This is a day late, but Ed Champion has some hilarious April Fools’ Day posts, including “Dan Brown Sues Himself,” “Jonathan Lethem Commits to Five Year Book Tour,” and “Jane Smiley To Stop Writing About Horses.” Check it out.