Sunday, June 17, 2007

Gone Fishing

I will be tooling around Italy for the next three weeks. Arrivederci!

House of Mondavi Book party

Julia Flynn Siler says a few words to her guests gathered at her party for her book, House of Mondavi.
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House of Mondavi Bok release party

Michael V. Carlisle of Inkwell Management says a few words about his client, Julia Flynn Siler, at the House of Mondavi Book party.
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Friday, June 15, 2007

House of Mondavi by Julia Flynn Siler

The name Mondavi is synonymous throughout the world with fine wine and graceful Napa culture. Well, the reality is a little more grim than that and it is stunningly revealed in Julia Flynn Siler’s new book: House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty. Part of the book is excerpted at the Wall Street Journal.

Julie is a member of my writing group, North 24th, and I am delighted to promote her book. It’s an amazing tale brought to life by Julie’s determination and inability to accept no as an answer. When she first started reporting the book, almost everyone in the Napa Valley was too intimidated by the powerful Mondavi family to talk to her. Even the Mondavis shunned her, as they were convinced that she just wanted to do a hit piece.

But Julie soldiered on, pouring through thousands of pages of court documents and interviewing hundreds of people. She flew to Italy to see the birthplace of Cesare Mondavi, the patriarch of the clan, and glammed herself up to hang out at the very fancy Napa Wine Auction. In short, she applied all the journalistic talents she acquired as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal to the book.

In the end, almost every member of the Mondavi family spoke with her, including Robert Mondavi and his wife, Margrit. Julie talked to people who were in the room that fateful day the Mondavis lost control of their once very successful wine empire and recreated that tense scene in the book. She also shows how the Mondavis raised the name recognition of California wines throughout the world and ushered in a new era of elegance to the Napa Valley.

Even though the book is well reported and documented, the Mondavis don’t seem thrilled that the details of their family’s infighting are now public. The family is still very influential and most Napa residents do not want to cross them. While the family has not yet said anything publicly about the book, it appears someone has pressured one Napa bookstore, Copperfield's, to withdraw its offer to have Julie come and read from the book. It also has been very difficult for Julie to set up any reading dates.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Let Me Present North 24th -- My Writing Group

On a gorgeous Sunday night a few weeks ago, I went out to dinner with nine women who have become some of my closest companions.

We were there to celebrate our individual accomplishments and the fact that we have been writing as a group for almost nine years. It’s been amazing to watch one another evolve from fledgling to accomplished writers. When we started, some of us had never published, some were traditional reporters, some focused on lifestyle tidbits for magazines. Now there are four books to our credit, four more on the way, and articles spread everywhere from More Magazine to to San Francisco Magazine to the New York Times. It’s an amazing, supportive group of writers.

We weren’t meeting at Foreign Cinema, a hip restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District that projects old movies on a wall in its garden, just to chat. We jammed into the crowded restaurant and ordered up a round of mojitos and wine to celebrate Allison Hoover Bartlett, who had just sold her book on a rare book thief and the book dealer who pursues him to Riverhead. (See the pictures here.)

Just 18 months earlier, the story had been a gleam in her eye. Then it was an article for San Francisco Magazine. Our group, called North 24th (since so many members live north of 24th Street in San Francisco), helped Allison shape her book proposal. Her agent did such an amazing job of drumming up interest in New York that her proposal sold in just a few days.

But there was more to celebrate! Three members of our group have books coming out in the next few months. The next up is Julia Flynn Siler, whose book The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, will be released next week. (More on that tomorrow) Susan Freinkel’s book, American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, will be published by the University of California Press in November. And Leslie Crawford and her son Sam are the authors of City Walks with Kids: San Francisco: 50 Adventures on Foot, which will be published by Chronicle Books in the fall.

Our doctor in the house, Katherine Neilan, is working on a medical memoir, and our local humorist, Jill Storey, always has us laughing, like in this piece about memory in the Washington Post. Katherine Ellison has published three books, including The Mommy Brain, and Sharon Neuschatz always shares her mindfulness with us.

Since writing is such an isolated profession, a writing group like North 24th is like a lifeline, a support system that sustains and encourages you. When the doubts descend as they always do, it’s helpful to have a set of colleagues who can remind you that setback and rejection are part of the process, and do not define you as a person or a writer.

And when that “yes” comes over e-mail, that writing group is there to celebrate. I know there are thousands of groups like North 24th around the country, and to them and my own friends I say “bottoms up!”

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

First the New York Times, Now the Chron. What's Next?

There’s a lot of book news in the Bay Area and most of it goes unreported in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The paper has taken a small step towards correcting that with book editor Oscar Villalon’s announcement that he will now regularly post literary items on the paper’s Culture Blog.

He had two today: one on McSweeney’s recent financial woes and its sale of original drawings on Ebay, and an announcement of books by local authors coming out in paperback.

These posts are welcomed, and part of a trend. The New York Times just launched a book blog, which is already being criticized.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Bye Bye Chronicle Veterans

The Chronicle's website has a nice farewell to some of the journalists who are departing.

Friday, June 08, 2007

The Grind of Writing

A number of bloggers are dissing this article, “My Book Deal Ruined my Life,” about the nitty gritty of writing books. They’ve lampooned the woe-is-me-cloistered-for years-behind-a-desk-to-grind-out-80,000-words attitude. Why does anyone who actually scores a book deal get to complain? they ask.

Well, I found a lot to like in this article, particularly about the repetitiveness of working on a book. I’ve been researching and writing my book, for, say seven years now, give or take a few years And while I am still excited about it, some days I feel just like this guy:

“I want this woman out of my life so much it’s ridiculous,” said Michael Anderson, 55, who has been researching and writing a book about the playwright Lorraine Hansberry for HarperCollins since 1998. “It has been, in essence, 10 years, and sometimes it seems like, ‘My God, why isn’t this thing done yet?’ But at times I think, ‘My God, it’s only been 10 years.’ I never understood why biographies took so much time; now I’m in awe that any of them get finished.”

When he received his contract, Mr. Anderson was working full-time as an editor at The New York Times Book Review, a job he had for 17 years. He figured he would try to take four years to finish the book and publish it by his 50th birthday. “But that was just na├»ve,” Mr. Anderson said.

He left The New York Times in 2005, sequestering himself in his Washington Heights apartment to devote himself to the book.

For months, each night, he would be startled from his slumber at 3:30 in the morning in the midst of a thought about Hansberry. “She’s a nice woman, but I don’t want to be with her all the time,” Mr Anderson said.”

And then there is the self-loathing aspect of writing. You don’t need a book deal to experience this:

“You’re not letting people read it as you write it. Nobody has ever read what you’re doing. It could be terrible. It could be brilliant. And you start to think, ‘Oh God, this is a complete piece of shit that couldn’t be published—nobody is going to read it.’ But then you have a sandwich and go, ‘I am a genius and I’m going to win the Booker Prize.’”

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Now the Mercury News Faces More Layoffs

Carole Leigh Hutton, the brand new executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, called a staff meeting on Wednesday to announce, that, yes, there would be cuts in the newsroom, but she couldn’t yet say how many.

Final figures will be worked out in the next few weeks as managers draw up their fiscal 2007-2008 budget. Every group of employees, from Guild members to managers, are apparently at risk.

Rumors have been swirling for days that as many as 60 staffers – 1 out of every 4 editorial employees – would be fired. John Bowman, the former executive editor of the San Mateo Times, part of the Media News group, heard that figure tossed around at a top-level meeting of Media News editors in April. He broke an unofficial code of silence to announce the numbers because he is so disheartened by what is happening to the industry. (Read his gloomy and depressing assessment of Bay Area MediaNews papers here.)

But on Wednesday Hutton said that she didn’t know where those numbers came from – and she was at the same meeting as Bowman.

This will be the third round of cuts at the Mercury News in the past 18 months.

“Everyone is so weary,” said an editor at the paper. “Weary, weary, weary. It’s a huge panic. The real danger is to democracy. Someone has to cover the city councils and Boards of Supervisors and police departments and corporations and hold them all accountable.”

Hutton has been at the Mercury News less than three weeks. She replaced Susan Goldberg, who left to take a job at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Hutton was previously vice-president of Community Newspapers, a collection of smaller Bay Area papers, and worked before that as an editor of the Detroit Free Press. Hutton apparently took the job knowing she would have to oversee deep cuts in the Mercury News operations. She told her staff that the job “was too good to pass up.”

Hutton also told her staff that she would try and reinvent the Mercury in the coming months, drawing on the model presented by She wants to “blow up the paper” and “do things differently.” In this model, readers, rather than just reporters, help determine what is covered.

"I would love to be the ones who figure this out,” Hutton told her staff, adding that “readers in Silicon Valley should be willing to read an innovative product.”

At this point, weary staffers at the paper are willing to try some new things, as long as they keep their integrity. But whether that will happen is still a big question mark.

Thoughts of the Departed

John Curley, who lost his job as the Chronicle's deputy managing editor on Monday, shows a picture of his work cubicle and offers some thoughts on being dismissed:

"Even though this is officially termed a "reduction in force," I am surprised and dismayed that the organization thinks it can have a future without me. To be honest, I thought I'd get the chance to help lead the paper where it needed to go to compete successfully in the digital age. But instead, off I go."

He says he's not bitter, just sad. (via California Authors)

Picking Up the Pieces in the Bay Area

Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein sent around a memo on Tuesday promising not to lay off any more management staff. But Hearst executives plan to approach the Newspaper Guild soon to discuss voluntary buyouts for the 80 reporters who still have to go.

Those remaining at the Chronicle have set up a blog to help their former colleagues find new employment. (In a side note, Chronicle Book Editor Oscar Villalon commented at the BEA fair in New York last weekend that the Chronicle has lost $330 million in recent years.)

Meanwhile, the folks south in San Jose are gritting their own teeth. There is no official word, but rumors are circulating that the Mercury News will cut another 60 reporters and editors at the end of the “cooling off” period set up late last year.

John Bowman, the executive editor of the San Mateo Times, which is part of the Media News group, broke rank with other company executives to reveal secret meetings held in April to discuss the cutbacks.

“Mr. Bowman said he disclosed the layoff plan and resigned as executive editor of the Times because he was fed up with MediaNews' policies of trying to run newspapers short-handed,” he told the website Grade The News.

"They're way past the point of diminishing returns, of penny-wise, pound-foolish," Mr. Bowman said of MediaNews' operations in the Bay Area.

As one Mercury News staffer put it “The Chronicle will be down to 300 when their cuts are done, and the Merc will be at 180 if the rumored 60 layoffs happen!!! The Bay Area will be the biggest intellectual/innovation center in the nation with the fewest daily reporters.”

Some names were left off the list of the departing editors: Washington Bureau Chief Mark Sandalow was also let go.

This is a peculiar act since Sandalow was all over the television and radio when Nancy Pelosi was elected Speaker of the House. He’s been covering her for years. Now why would a paper fire someone who is probably better positioned than anyone else to keep tabs on the third most powerful person in the country?

Also, John Curley was not the last remaining person on the masthead from the days before Hearst bought the Chronicle. Editorial page editor John Diaz has been working for the Chronicle pre-Hearst.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ten Top Editors Out at the San Francisco Chronicle

The grimmest workplace in the United States today might be the San Francisco Chronicle, after a first round of layoffs bit deeply into a veteran reporting staff.

You know times are bad when Executive Editor Phil Bronstein gives the boot to men and women who have been his colleagues for years – some all the way back to his early tenure at the Examiner. These cuts are so draconian and eliminate so many veteran journalists that one can’t help believe that the Chronicle will have a tough time putting out a quality product. And there are another 80 cuts of reporters yet to come!

This is bad, bad news for Bay Area journalism.

Robert Rosenthal, the managing editor, made his exit last Friday. By Monday, nine other top managers had been axed:

John Curley, the deputy managing editor and the last name on the masthead from the days before the Chronicle was bought by the Hearst Corporation.

Leslie Guevarra, the deputy managing editor. She has been Bay Area journalist ever since I can remember

Steve Cook, the assistant managing editor for enterprise, project and investigative reporting.

Jim Finefrock, editor of the Insight section

Paul Wilner, the editor of the Style section

George Judson, the assistant managing editor of enterprise. (This is hard for me to hear personally as I credit George for giving my own newspaper career a boost. When I was a young reporter in Ithaca, New York, George worked as an editor at the New York Times and hired me as a stringer)

Laura Impellizzeri, assistant metro editor

David Tong, assistant business editor

Hulda Nelson, the art director in charge of graphics.

The new masthead is already up. Boy is it short.

There was no official notice of the layoffs in Tuesday’s newspaper. But columnist Leah Garchik did give a nod to her departing colleagues.

“You've probably read in this very paper that The Chronicle is cutting about 100 jobs. This is necessary if we are to survive; newspapers are in trouble all over the country. Meanwhile, the rest of us labor quietly, hoping not to be tapped. The process has started; those whose jobs have so far been spared are cowering.

So this is written as a loud public sob. Every leaving colleague/friend will be missed. We are all diminished."