Saturday, June 9, 2012

reading and writing and publishing and publicity

Roger Ebert tweeted today with a link to a little piece on Ray Bradbury by Junot Diaz. It is well-known that I'm crazy about movies and music, but I think writers are my real rock stars. (And let's remember that my all time favorite rock musician, Elvis Costello, writes some of the finest lyrics on the planet.)

I come from a family of bookworms. My dad was a journalism major and aspired to be an old-school Broadway lyricist. My uncle Howard is easily the most serious bookworm among us. From when he was in college, he only ever worked in bookstores and libraries, and his last two jobs before he retired was as head librarian in a couple of nice, small New Jersey communities. When it became clear that I was also a mad reader and reading way above my grade level, Howard fed me books, even though he lived in Philadelphia. I would say that I was reading what is now called "young adult" books when I was six or seven (they were a little cleaner back then), and started reading adult books at eight or nine.

So get this: I'm around nine, in the school library, reading Black Boy by Richard Wright, which was a gift from Howard. I pretty much understood it, but there was a word I didn't know and could figure out. The drill was to ask the school librarian, who flatly refused to tell me what "whore" meant. (I pronounced the "w.")

Howard probably gave me my first Ray Bradbury book around that time. I adored him, and read his books over and over. I wasn't and didn't become a huge sci-fi fan; I had about half a dozen authors I liked and read extensively. I never read sci-fi outside that group until I was past 40; I had a very close friend (broke with her some years back) who was a publisher of sci-fi and (shudder!) fantasy.

I loathe fantasy; it's one of the genres I truly hate. Any book or movie, once there's magic or a wizard or an elf or any of that shit, that's it for me. I am proud to say that I saw "Lord of the Rings" in a theater and fell asleep.

However, after getting by for a few years with never reading any of my friend's books, she pressed me very gently. I had to. And the first thing she recommended very highly was a fantasy series of five thick books (I just checked two of them on Amazon: one was 600+ pages and the other was 900+). They were not too wizardy and awful, and the guy writes well, but after a while, it was more of a task than a pleasure. I read all five, and a few of her other authors who were more sci-fi.

So what I mostly loved about Bradbury was the way he wrote. I haven't reread him in many years, but I remember the feeling of welcome about his writing, a warmth and simplicity and clarity.

The other sci-fi-writers I enjoyed: Robert Silverberg, Robert Shockley, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven & Dave Pournell. Robert Heinlein.

And: when I was, I believe, in middle school, in 1971...and I don't tell this to a lot of people...I attended the first-ever Star Trek convention. I was devoted to the original series, and I went with a bunch of my friends. Back then, kiddies, it was a huge big deal to watch the uncut episodes on a big screen with no commercials, since mostly what we had all seen were the edited reruns on WPIX. But the really big deal was that I met Himself, Isaac Asimov, and he signed my copy of I, Robot. (No, I no longer have it, another fucking heartbreaking loss of a material possession.) He made all of the girls give him a kiss on the cheek before he would sign a book. I took a photo of him. (I may still have one of my Star Trek Con pictures, but the Asimov pictures are also no longer with me.)

When I worked at Penguin, it was very exciting to me to meet or even see some very famous and wonderful authors, and I acquired quite a few signed books and personally signed books. (Some I still have, some not.) I'm not much of one for autographs - Barry likes them much more than I do - but I love a signed book.)

I'm the same way about mysteries as I am about sci-fi: I'm not wild about the genre, but I have certain authors I like. I swallowed by timidity and barged in on the late, great Robert D. Parker, who was sitting in a conference room signing stock, turned into (as V. used to put it) a gushing fangirl, and asked him to sign a book to me. It was kind of uncool to bug another imprint's authors (he wrote for Putnam), although sometimes an imprint will set up an in-house signing. But I simply could not miss the chance to shake hands with Robert Parker. Putnam had a lot of those bestselling authors like Tom Clancy and John Sandford and Sue Grafton.

Other mystery writers I like: George S. Chesbro, Lawrence Block (he was very big with the AA set), Jonathan and Faye Kellerman, and a few others I'm not remembering. Elmore Leonard. Do not like British mysteries at all.

Other authors from whom I had personally signed books at Penguin: Paul Rusesbagina  (the "Hotel Rwanda" guy), Kim Edwards (The Memory Keeper's Daughter). I spotted a few celebrity authors when I worked there and said hi: Lorraine Bracco (Doctor Bronx herself!), Ellen Burstyn, Morgan Spurlock, the Rev. T.D. Jakes.

And a couple of authors I represented; I've probably mentioned David Lynch a million times already, but there was also Daniel Pinchbeck, who wrote 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. This was really the first big 2012 book (non-fiction), and my first-ever author. (My boss actually passed him onto me when I was still a temp, although I was in the process of trying to get hired full-time for the job.) I have to say that Daniel's two biggest publicity hits were his own doing: The Colbert Report and Rolling Stone, but I knew exactly who and where his audience was, toured him the right cities, and the book did amazingly, unexpectedly well in the mind-body-spirit category (The Genre Formerly Known As New Age). It made the very bottom of the New York Times' extended bestseller list one week. (The extended portion, which I think is positions 20-35, is not published and your are not permitted to call the book "a New York Times bestseller. But still.) It charted in San Francisco and Portland and Seattle.

It made my imprint, Tarcher, very happy to have hired me. I was brought on by the wonderful editor and publicist and writer Ken Siman. Ken taught me and trusted me. I was the most junior of three publicists, and of course least likely to get the most important authors; but when I heard we were doing a book by David Lynch (I will stop dropping that name some day), I ran into his office and said "ooh, ooh ooh!" and he gave me the book. Ken figured out very early on that when I got excited about a book, I got right into the zone.

When he left and his successor came on, she didn't like me one bit, and kept all of the good-looking books for herself. Once I had one that was small but I was very excited about, and she horned in, put herself on the team with me, and flat-out wrecked it. She was the anti-Ken. At the time she started, the Lynch book was about to come out in paperback, and if a publicist had the hardcover, they had the paperback, period. It simply killed her that I had the Lynch book, especially since it was about TM (transcendental meditation), and she grew up TM in a TM family in Fairfield, Iowa, which is TM Central, where the TM university was. The best part was when she came with me to the first NYC Lynch event, and David came right over to me and kissed me on the mouth. (This was nothing flirty or improper; we had just had a really nice working relationship on the book.) I believe that this was when she knew that I absolutely could not be taken off the paperback, and probably nothing she could do to improve the publicity campaign.

Of course, David generated his own publicity, layering project over project. During the book publicity, he was also promoting the David Lynch Foundation (funding TM training for at-risk kids), his own brand of coffee, and his movie Inland Empire. David got publicity just for being David Lynch. All I really had to do was to point the book at the right audience.

If you twisted my arm for my all-time favorite fiction author, I would have to go with John Irving, with Marge Piercy close behind. Favorite non-fiction is probably the classic essays of E.B. White. When I studied writing in the early 80s, my favorite professor, Bill Decker, taught me how to write more simply and clearly by pointing me to White.

I'm a washout as a fiction writer; I am no damned good at writing outside my own experience. I wrote one good short story and a handful of shitty ones, a few of which were published in what they used to call "little-literary" magazines, which generally pay in copies. I had more success in similar publications with my poetry, but I don't think I've written one in 20 years now. (And I no longer have a copy of any sort of the best one I ever wrote, which was published in a little-literary, called palm sunday, coney island, which I wrote on the subway.) I've never written a theater or film script. But I can write.

I learned to write by keeping a journal (and later, of course, blogs) since I was eight, and reading voraciously for my entire life. Being self-taught, I took my first writing class when I was about 25 because I had absolutely no idea if I wrote well or not. I had zero training in the rules of grammar, punctuation and the like; I pretty much had it all right, but never knew the names for any of it. (This is what happens when you go to a progressive, avant-garde, experimental school for gifted children: you read Moliere in French at 12, BUT YOU NEVER LEARN THE RULES OF ENGLISH GRAMMAR.) Bill shaped and directed me a bit (one course in writing, one in editing, and an independent study), and this is where I ended up. I'm very, very happy with my level of writing and editing skills, and they help me immensely every day of my life.

OK, after the long way around, we're coming home.

My cubicle at Tarcher was right in front of Ken's office, which was right next to the office of a publicist for the literary imprint Riverhead. A bookcase of our books was right next to the Riverhead publicist's office. One day, a damned good-looking young dude was waiting to see the Riverhead publicist, looking at our books, a grinning. I said, "Are you laughing at our mind-body-spirit books?" And he said, "No, I just had no idea there were books about some of this stuff."

The next time I saw the handsome guy, I kow-towed, because I had read his book, The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and the handsome guy was Junot Diaz.

That's Junot bein' handsome. Not shown: that he is one of the finest, most amazing authors of our time, genius. And he loved Ray Bradbury too.

1 comment:

  1. I knew it would happen. I knew we would find a place where our tastes differ. I adore fantasy, have read The Lord of the Rings every year or so, since I was 15. I also adore mysteries. They're my go-to genre when I'm stressed.

    I envy your your career in publishing. Perhaps with better contacts, I might have gotten a book published. Oh well.