Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joseph D'Agnese. Show all posts

16 September 2021

Scott and Zelda in My Own Backyard



The Grove Park Inn is a fancy old mountain resort in my neck of the woods, Asheville, North Carolina. Each year the hotel allows visitors to wander free through adjoining rooms 441 and 443 on a weekend that falls close to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday, September 24th. An English professor from one of the local universities, serving as a docent of sorts, shares with guests the unusual circumstances that brought Fitzgerald to the Inn during the summers of 1935 and 1936.


The inn’s staff always “decorates” the room with period props, conveying the impression that Mr. Fitzgerald has just stepped out. A typewriter is among the artifacts, but that doesn’t mean Fitzgerald ever got any serious writing done while here.

His life and career were tanking fast by the time he occupied these rooms. For years he’d been the darling of the big magazines. Editors paid him thousands—yes, thousands of actual U.S. dollars—for stories that might have been a subscribing family’s only weekly entertainment in the days before radio. But by the 1930s, Fitzgerald’s glittering take on society folks reeked of elitism in the harsh light of the Depression. 

On those summer visits to the Grove Park Inn, Fitzgerald was struggling to keep himself afloat financially, and to pay for his wife Zelda’s stays at a nearby Asheville psychiatric facility, Highland Hospital. While Zelda battled her demons, Scott battled his. Determined to reduce his gin intake, he switched to drinking beer. His beverage of choice were so-called “pony” bottles of beer, which contained 7 U.S. fluid ounces. The bizarre sobriety plan might have worked, if it weren’t for the fact that he consumed 50 of those bottles a day—a total of 2.7 gallons of beer.


The inn's staff always litters the suite with empty beer bottles.
(This is not a pony-sized bottle.)

You would think things could not get much worse. Then Fitzgerald broke his shoulder in a swimming pool dive, passed out in his bathroom, and was discovered by the staff the next morning. In a later incident, he nearly fired a handgun, but was stopped by a bellman. These two incidents fueled rumors that he’d tried to commit suicide. His biographers are not so sure about that. He wrestled with thoughts of suicide for the rest of his life, but especially after a scathing newspaper article about him appeared in The New York Post and ran in syndication around the nation.

The reporter, Michael Mok, had visited Fitzgerald in his Asheville rooms, and could not help notice how far the Jazz Age icon had fallen. While this trembling, 40-year-old wreck of a man tried to present himself as on top of his game, a nurse (presumably hired by the hotel) hovered and surveilled his every move, trying to limit his alcohol intake and ensure a sensible diet. Mok’s article was devastating. It portrayed this voice of the Lost Generation as a washed-up has-been.

Fitzgerald eventually moved on to other (cheaper) hotels in the region. He wrote his famous essay, “The Crack-Up,” at a hotel in nearby Hendersonville, a town about 30 minutes south that I’ve talked about in a previous post. He went to Hollywood in 1937, hoping to turn his fortunes around. The money he made there was lucrative, but he spent most of it on his wife’s medical bills and their daughter’s education. He was dead by 1940, at the age of 44, a victim not of suicide but his own ailing heart.


Brian Railsback, professor and author, shares Fitzgerald's story with visitors.

At death he no doubt considered himself a failure, and never lived to see what we now all take for granted: that at some point in every young American’s life, you’re going to read The Great Gatsby, whether you like it or not. The book Fitzgerald conceived as his sparkling masterpiece sold poorly during his lifetime, but today racks up about a half million sales a year, has been translated into 42 languages, and has sold nearly 30 million copies worldwide. That’s just one book. Perhaps more impressive is his short fiction output: 181 stories, published and unpublished, that we know of.

One of those short pieces was written with Zelda, who, I might add, survived Fitzgerald by nearly eight years. She died in a kitchen fire that swept through one of the buildings in the Highland Hospital complex in 1948. Nine women lost their lives that night.

Bus tours swing through the leafy historic neighborhood here on a daily basis to share her story with tourists. On its own, her tale is painful enough, but the full Fitzgerald Asheville saga approaches an almost crushing poignancy.


A stone marker on Zillicoa Street in Asheville marks the site.


* * *


If you can indulge me the mention of yet another alcoholic writer, Dashiell Hammett, I promise to cloak it in a more cheerful wrapper. These Nomi notebooks are fashioned from recycled paper, and are fountain pen-friendly. I couldn’t resist backing the Kickstarter as soon as I glimpsed the noir-themed endpapers. New Yorker cartoonist Shuchita Mishra created these two images as a salute to the city of San Francisco. The building depicted at the bottom is 891 Post Street, where Dashiell Hammett once lived, wrote most of his famous works, and where he sited Sam Spade’s apartment. Check out the Kickstarter for these notebooks and the hilarious video here.

See you in three weeks!

Joe



Some sources for this article:

Read excerpts from the letters of Fitzgerald’s nurse here and here.

An NPR article on Fitzgerald’s days in Asheville.

The Fitzgerald episode is also recounted in my wife’s book, The Last Castle.








27 August 2021

What Every Author Should Be Carrying in Their Pockets


I read a post once by the author Joe Konrath in which he went off on bookmarks. He started confronting authors at conferences who were pressing bookmarks into his hands. He says he finally asked them, "Have you ever bought a book because someone gave you a bookmark?" Their eyes boggled, the wheels turned, and maybe he changed a few authors’ minds about the wisdom of spending money on a marketing tool that doesn’t perform the way you’d like it to.

I’ve got two drawers in our office filled with bookmarks. The publishers print ’em up for my wife’s books, so I dutifully mail them to people whenever we send out a book or a bookplate. And if I’m anywhere near the table when Denise does signings, I always slip a bookmark into the reader’s book before they leave the table. Why? Because I hate the damn things, and I can’t wait to get rid of them. Thanks to my efforts, I predict we will finally finish them all by 2063.

I don’t like them because I don’t know how to carry them easily. No matter what I do, they end up crinkled, bent, or worse in the backpack I carry to book events. Or, if I do carefully preserve them in a little cardboard box toted for this purpose, that box and backpack are usually not on my person when I need it most.

If I do have them with me, I am treated to the same dispiriting spectacle every time. Immediately upon being handed a bookmark, people hesitate, trying to decide what to do with it. If a purse or backpack is handy, the person will stuff it in there. If not, I watch them fold the bookmark to fit it into their pockets. So much for trying to keep them pristine.

In my non-pandemic life I spent an inordinate amount of time sitting at bars, coffee or otherwise. Which, let’s face it, is where people schmooze. Just as often, we’d get invited to neighborhood potlucks, musical concerts, art showings. Places where people stand around with little plates and guzzle alcohol and talk.

Inevitably, you strike up a conversation with people, they discover you write books, they’re impressed, (yes, I think that’s funny, too), and upon leaving the venue they promise to go right home and immediately order your book.

But before they depart, they say things like:

What’s your name again?

How do you spell that?

What’s the name of the book you mentioned? The one for kids? The mystery one? The one about rutabagas?

Where can I buy that?

Can I get it on Amazon/B&N/the place where I buy batteries?


(Seriously, they really ask where they can buy it. It’s a wonder books are bought at all in this country.)

In those moments, sweet Joe Konrath help me, I wish I did have a damn bookmark with all that information on it. These sort of encounters happen so often that they are beat-by-beat predictable.

Good example: I’m writing this in Charleston, South Carolina, where we are on a research/vacation trip. Before we left home, I reminded Denise to bring along her stash of bookmarks/bookplates/business cards. She balked, but brought them nevertheless. The first afternoon in town, we explored the city and ended up at the bar of a restaurant.

Somewhere between the she-crab soup and the fried fish platter, Denise naturally struck up a conversation with a woman who is fascinated with writing, and has recently begun journaling her heart out. Just before she and her boyfriend settle their tab and go, the woman asks Denise for a card, or something, so she can check out Denise’s books. And Denise laughs. Why? She left all that crap in the hotel because she didn’t think she’d run into someone on the very first night of our trip. But she did. She always does. Like I said, beat-by-beat predictable.

To get around the Dilemma of the Inconvenient Bookmark, here’s what I did pre-Covid, and what I hope to start doing again. You see these here? They’re business cards.



On one side is my name, contact details, website, and social media details. On the other side is the cover of one of my books. I got them printed up by a company called Moo, and no, I don’t get a kickback. I’m just a stationery geek, which in my book is preferable to being a bookmark geek. Moo has a special customized business card option that allows you to print up to 50 different images on the backs of your business cards for one fixed price. (The link in this paragraph will take you right to that page.)


When I ghost-wrote a book for a restaurant guru, 
I had these cards made up for the launch event.

Moo says that they envisioned these cards as portable portfolios for creative types. And while Denise and I were researching in Charleston, I noticed that the librarians and archivists at the place we were working every day also used Moo for their business cards, which showcase the sort of one-of-a-kind artwork and printed ephemera from books the library holds in its collection.


If this sort of card makes sense for librarians, photographers, artists, designers, and maybe engineers or architects, why not writers?

Because they’re business cards, they fit in my wallet or a business card holder. I don’t hand them out promiscuously, so they feel more cost-effective than bookmarks, he said hopefully.

Sure, there’s no guarantee that the person to whom you give these cards will ever buy the book. But who cares? Because they’re business cards, they don’t weigh on my mind like those damn bookmarks. I don’t ever feel compelled to use them up. They don’t feel like a waste of money because in certain professional situations, I actually do still need business cards. At least, I did before the world crashed and burned.

Now: Sometimes you don’t want to give complete strangers your contact details. Fine. That’s why I print up a second, “blind” batch; no address, phone number, or email, just name, website, and social. That’s all the person needs anyway. That, and the title and cover of the book you somehow happened to mention in your chat. My “blind” stash is always readily available in my wallet, the “full” version less so. You can color-code the cards if you want, but why make yourself crazy?

I probably don’t need to say this, but the book cover image you print on the card should absolutely be the version that people will most likely encounter in a store or online. So if your publisher recently issued paperbacks with a new cover, print that cover. Ditto if you, the self-pubbed author, recently changed the cover of the book. (I recently changed the covers of some of my books, so I need to update the cards.)

Lastly, despite my lovely cards, I was sad to hear that in-person Bouchercon was canceled again this year. But please, feel free to mail your bookmarks to the home address not printed on the obverse of my card.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe


06 August 2021

The Birth of a Hard-Boiled Detective


My friend Terry Roberts has a new book out that’s set in 1920, but as I was reading it on the beach a few weeks ago I felt like I was reliving our national drama of the past few years. Toward the end of the novel, his detective delivers a line that has stuck with me since: “There’s something inside all of us that loves to hate.” Terry is the winner of numerous awards for Southern literary fiction, and I’m pleased to share his guest column with you today. Welcome, Terry! —Joseph D’Agnese



Is a true detective born … or made? Some of each, I imagine—both in life and in fiction. For me, one of the most fascinating transformations in all of crime writing is when a character realizes that he or she has a gift. And that the gift has to do with seeing behind the surface of things, reading the depths of people, finding the truth when it’s badly obscured. In other words, when a man or woman discovers they possess a hidden talent for detection.

As a reader, one of the most enjoyable transformations of this kind is the one that takes place in Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, when Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins realizes that he can make a living—a good living—in the detective business. Which apparently, he can, because Blood Grove, published in 2021, is the 15th Easy Rawlins mystery, each as rich and thought-provoking as the first. I, for one, would follow Easy Rawlins almost anywhere, as long as Mouse is along for the ride. Even so, Easy wasn’t born a detective; Walter Mosley made him one.

On a much smaller scale, something similar happened to me when I began to imagine the book that became My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, a mystery set on Ellis Island in 1920. I knew that the book was about xenophobia, the disease that haunts our species, causing us to hate and fear the other. I knew that the story was a murder mystery in which the murderers were killing off those whom they would deny entry into the country as a way of protecting the Nordic purity of the American population. In fact, I knew a lot about the setting and plot of the story I wanted to tell, but I needed a detective.

As history and fiction would have it, the narrator of my first novel, A Short Time to Stay Here, was alive and well in 1920, living in Manhattan, where he’d sought out a woman, Anna Ulmann, with whom he was in love. This character’s name is Stephen Robbins, and quite unexpectedly, he stepped forward and offered his services in the detecting line. At least in my imagination, he did.

At first, I didn’t buy it.

Stephen’s origins were about as alien to New York as they could possibly be. He was born in an extremely isolated community in the Southern Appalachians. He ran away from home when he was ten years old and made his way in the world by working at a famous resort hotel in the tiny hamlet of Hot Springs, North Carolina. He was largely self-educated, quiet, watchful, considerate. Full of humorous cynicism and stubbornness. Loyal to a fault. Drank too much. Violent streak. All of this and, as his relationship with Anna showed, capable of real tenderness.

Fair enough, I told Stephen in my mind. Alcohol and gunplay, seeing without being seen. Sounded like the makings of a hard-boiled detective to me. But there was a problem; he had no real experience, no procedural expertise. He was a native of the Southern mountains, and his dialect was so thick that he could barely make himself understood when he first came to New York. As for Ellis Island, he was as much a foreigner as the immigrants themselves.


Terry Roberts

Despite all my initial reservations, the Stephen Robbins of my imagination convinced me that he had the makings of a sleuth. A shamus, a dick, an operative. And not only could he operate at home in the isolated coves of the Southern mountains, but he might be an equally good bad man in that fraught whirlpool of humanity … Ellis Island.

Under the pressure of the moment, Stephen Robbins evolved.

By the time we see him in the opening pages of My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, he and Anna have grown apart, his job as manager of the fabled Algonquin Hotel has grown stale, and he worries about his “slowly falling-apart life.” When offered an opportunity by the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) to go to Ellis Island to search for a missing Irish immigrant girl, he leaps at the opportunity.

I wrote earlier that Walter Mosley made Easy Rawlins a detective, or at least gave him the realization that he had talent. The same could be said of Stephen Robbins. Out of his personality and life experiences, I created the stubbornness, the toughness, the instincts of a truly gifted hunter. Early in the novel, he sees his beloved Anna in the passionate embrace of another man and the resulting trauma sends him spiraling into a series of self-examinations that parallel his increasing awareness of what is truly going on at Ellis Island. We are, he realizes, each of us mongrels, each of us immigrants.

Along the way, he forms a personal and professional partnership with Nurse Lucy Paul, a tough cookie in her own right, who is equally determined to put an end to the murders and disappearances on the island. Together, they make a pair straight out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes or … Walter Mosley. Their life and love are sometimes harsh, sometimes fearful, sometimes soaked in pre-prohibition Scotch. But while saving each other from despair, they also save the Ellis Island from the monsters who haunt it.

And so it was that out of Stephen Robbins, the hard-headed romantic from A Short Time To Stay Here, was born Stephen Robbins, the federal op who could find any lost thing or missing person. Late in the novel, after a formal inquiry into the deaths of two of the secret “congregation” who have been killing unwanted immigrants, Stephen’s contact in the Bureau of Investigation threatens to pull him out of the dangerous situation on Ellis Island. “You were never trained for this type of work,” he says.

“Maybe I’m just a goddamned natural,” Stephen replies.

In retrospect, maybe he was. Maybe I just needed to realize it.


(From Turner Publishing, $16.99 paperback.)



I hope you enjoyed this visit from a possibly new-to-you author. You can check out the book at Bookshop.org, visit Terry’s website, or read the Publishers Weekly or Washington Independent Review of Books reviews here. Terry recently did a post for Crime Reads on hard-boiled detectives, which you might also enjoy.

Unfortunately I won’t be at Bouchercon, but I will be back here in three weeks. See you then!
— Joe

16 July 2021

A Sherlock Holmes Canon for Kids


In the summer before the pandemic, my wife and I went to a local minor league game with another couple and their three kids. When the youngest daughter, who was barely ten back then, announced she wanted to sit near good ol’ Joe, I thought nothing of it. Like Archie Goodwin, I am convinced that dogs and children find me irresistible. It wasn’t long before she spotted me paging through an ebook on my device.

“What are you reading?

“A book.”

“What kind of book?”

“Uh, it’s a Sherlock Holmes story.”

“Really? Is it a mystery?”

“Well, yeah—they’re all mysteries.”

“What’s the story? Can you tell me? Because, you see…” she said, her voice rising, “I like MURDER!”

One of the guys sitting in front of us—a total bro in sunglasses, Croakies, and a 20-ounce microbrew sloshing away in a flimsy paper cup—whirled around. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but this conversation suddenly got very interesting!”

Which was a hoot.

Except I didn’t quite know how to quickly summarize the plot of the Holmes tale I was reading in language suitable for a child. Especially someone else’s child. If the tale had been the Red-Headed League, for example, I might have focused my description on the strangeness of hiring gingers to copy the encyclopedia. Or, if it was the story of Silver Blaze, I would have treated her to Holmes’s deductions regarding the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.

But this story, the Crooked Man, if I remember correctly, was a little too adult. Sexual jealousy and spousal manipulation is not something you want to delve into with a kid unless you’ve got parental consent forms filled out in triplicate. I was not going there. Instead, my little friend and I talked about about Holmes and Watson and sweet, sweet murder in the abstract.

Many of us grew up reading those stories. I loved them, but I also remember that many of them went over my head because I didn’t have the maturity to understand what these grown-ups were yammering on about. When you couple that with archaic language, mores, customs and behaviors, it’s not hard to see that the best Holmes for kids may well be cherry-picked Holmes.

Since I’m not going to be able to do that for everyone’s kid, I’ve compiled the following list of children’s book series that I think would make good introductions to the Canon. Understand: I don’t propose these as a substitute for Canonical Holmes. Rather, I see them as a bridge to Holmes.

I recently read the first books of all the series I mention here. Incredibly, all of them are/were written by American authors. 

Two caveats: 
* The recommended age ranges are the suggestions of the publishers, not me. The child you have in mind may read at a higher or lower level. 

* If you’re buying for birthday or holidays, keep in mind that many of these books are available in boxed sets. It might be smarter to splurge on the set.


The Great Shelby Holmes by Elizabeth Eulberg (The Great Shelby Holmes Series, Bloomsbury, $7.99).

John Watson is an 11-year-old Black kid who has just moved with his mom to New York City for the first time, after years of growing up on US Army posts. John, a budding writer, is starved for friends in his new city. (John’s parents are divorced, and his dad is bad about calling or visiting.) Their landlady Mrs. Hudson introduces John to the strange 9-year-old girl who lives across the hall of their Harlem apartment building, in apartment 221B. 

Within seconds of meeting the Watsons, this girl deduces that John’s mom is a doctor who sustained a hip injury while serving in Afghanistan. The girl, of course, is the brilliant, titular Shelby Holmes, who has made a name for herself cracking cases in her Harlem neighborhood, befriending the local shopkeepers and bookies, and irritating Detective Lestrade of the NYPD. 

The plots of these charming series, currently in its fourth book, are loosely inspired by the original Holmes stories, and feature kids of all races and economic backgrounds. Illustrations here and there break up the text.

Since the character names are drawn so directly from the Canon, readers have to pretend that the original Sherlock and Dr. Watson never existed, since people would be referencing them any time they met our heroes. 

But I assure you that as soon as I learned that Shelby has a smarter, lazy brother named Michael, that she was studying violin in school, and that she has for a pet an English bulldog named Sir Arthur, I was thinking, “Sherlock who?” Ages 8-12 years.


Basil of Baker Street, by Eve Titus/Cathy Hapka (The Great Mouse Detective series, Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, $5.99).

I adored the first two books of this series when I was a kid. The first one still holds up. 

Basil, a mouse who lives in the basement at 221B Baker Street, learns deductive techniques by eavesdropping on the great sleuth himself. Basil’s adventures are narrated by his mouse companion, Dr. David Q. Dawson. Together, the two battle crime in a Victorian “underworld” teeming with vicious cats, rats, and other threatening creatures. 

The first Basil title was published in 1958, and inspired the 1986 Disney film, The Great Mouse Detective. Eve Titus, who conceived and wrote the first five books, died in 2002. The series—now eight books strong—was continued by Cathy Hapka. It warms my heart to see that the first five titles retain the original art by the late Paul Galdone. Really fun. Ages 6-9.
Basil in a Box!



The 100-Year-Old Secret, by Tracy Barrett (The Sherlock Files series, Macmillan/Square Fish, $6.99).

Growing up in 21st Century Florida, 12-year-old Xena and her 10-year-old brother Xander play an unusual game. They study strangers and deduce their occupations based on clues gleaned from these people’s manner of dress and behavior. They’ve learned how to play the Game from their father, whose family has apparently “played” it for generations. 

But when Dad, whose name just happens to be Mr. Holmes, is transferred to London for a year, the children discover the shocking truth: they are the great-great-great-grandchildren of a certain violin-playing denizen of Baker Street. When Dad’s elderly Aunt Mary Watson presents them with a handwritten notebook of Sherlock’s unsolved cases that the Watson descendants have carefully preserved for a century, the children become embroiled in the mystery of a precious stolen painting. It seems that Sherlock abandoned this case, as he cryptically notes in his casebook, “to pursue intriguing case of lion’s mane.” 

Four books thus far in this series. They are much shorter than the Shelby Holmes books above, but have no illustrations. Ages 8-12.


The Case of the Missing Marquess, by Nancy Springer (Enola Holmes Mystery series, Puffin Books, $7.99).

Springer’s knack for telling detail and research give us a marvelous rendering of Victorian England and the plight of women, young and old, during that period. 

Her heroine, Enola, is Sherlock and Mycroft’s younger sister. In the first book, Enola awakes the morning of her 14th birthday to discover that her mother—the only surviving Holmes parent—has disappeared. Wonderful bits of deduction, code-breaking, and the use of the language of flowers throughout the first book. 

This series is the basis of the hit 2020 Netflix film, which as you might know attracted some bad attention from the Doyle estate for giving Sherlock “too many feelings,” as one journalist cheekily put it. (The parties settled out of court.) 

I’ll talk about the film in a future post. Spoiler alert: I loved it. Solid family entertainment, though its plot departs significantly from the text of the first book. A second film is in the works, but get those kids reading the series now.

Short books, with no illustrations. PRH/Puffin pubs the first six books in the series; Macmillan pubs the seventh next month. Ages 8-12.


* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe

25 June 2021

Ugolino Revisited


It’s November 2020. The weather’s warm on this, the weekend before Thanksgiving, so we decide to drink a bottle of wine outside on the patio. For eight months we have patronized a wine shop that delivers right to our door. The wine guy knows our tastes so well that he now just picks bottles he thinks we will enjoy. My wife grabs a bottle of white out of the fridge and brings it outside with two glasses. We pop the cork and pour the wine. My eyes flit across the label, and suddenly I’m traveling back in time.

You know this kind of moment, don’t you? Marcel Proust wrote his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, on the strength of a single, now-legendary memory—experienced by his protagonist. When writers bandy about the adjective Proustian, they are referring to this scene.

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer via Unsplash

“I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me. A delicious pleasure had invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately rendered the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precious essence: or rather this essence was not merely inside me, it was me.”
In Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh employs not taste but a word and a sight to trigger the reverie of his narrator. In the middle of World War II Charles Ryder awakes one morning in his army tent to find that his unit is encamped on the grounds of an old country estate. He asks someone where they are.
“He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”
They’re at Brideshead, of course. Ryder will now take 14 chapters to tell us why the place evokes such a profound feeling (largely of loss) in him. I suppose 14 chapters isn’t a bad length to milk a memory. Proust needed seven whole volumes to do the same.

Most people would call these moments flashbacks, but Proust called them involuntary memory. In creative works such experiences have three important components: 1) they trigger a memory of one’s youth, 2) accompanied by feelings of melancholy/loss, and 3) that memory has to be so freaking important that your plot lives or dies by it.

In The Sopranos, mob boss Tony Soprano suffers panic attacks whenever he sees, smells, or eats meat. These puzzling attacks trigger medical intervention, and eventually psychotherapy—which becomes the entire conceit of the show. In therapy, Tony realizes that as a kid he first witnessed his father’s violence in the back room of a butcher’s shop, and later watched his parents become amorous after Pop brings home meat from that pork store. Sex, meat, violence—madonna mia!—no wonder the guy’s screwed up.

In my family, we refer to such moments as “The Ratatouille Whoosh Scene.” In the Disney/Pixar film, our tiny protagonist—Remy, a rat who dreams of being a chef—finally gets his big chance to cook a meal for the snootiest (and aptly named) Parisian food critic, Anton Ego. The critic is primed to hate the work of this new, unknown chef. The waiter brings out a plate of the classic peasant dish. A puzzled Ego pops a morsel into his mouth. Whoosh!—he’s transported to his childhood and some memories of his sweet Maman. The entire plot of the film—and the lives of all the characters, including the critic—are transformed by that reverie.


I’m unsure if my whoosh moment last November lives up to the Proustian ideal. It was far from life-changing, but it did remind me that as much we strive to live in the present, the past has a hold on us that we can never shake. And when we write fictional characters, it’s wise to layer in these types of memories.


The wine, you see, was Italian, and bore the name Ugolino.

When I was a kid in high school, learning Italian for the first time, our teacher had us read selections from Dante’s Inferno. And so we learned that in the Ninth Circle of Hell resided the tortured spirit of Ugolino della Gherardesca. In real life he’d been an Italian noble and military commander who was tossed in a dungeon with his sons and grandsons for the crime of treason. In Dante’s scene, Ugolino recounts how his starving kin begged him to ease his own pain (and theirs) by killing and eating them.

Apologies for inserting the grisly specter of cannibalism into a story that up to now has featured subjects as lovely as baked goods, vegetable dishes, country estates, capicola, and wine. Cannibalism appears in true crime, journalism, fiction, fairy tales, and filmed dramas, but this is the only example I can think of where the subject figures in epic poetry. Archeologists say the real Ugolino (and his family) did not resort to cannibalism in their cell. But Dante hints at it in his lines, and depicts Ugolino as chewing on the skull of his enemy, the archbishop who had him imprisoned.

Our teacher asked for volunteers to read these passages aloud. Finding our attempts lackluster, our teacher demonstrated for us what he considered to be a lively, animated declamation. He threw his arms in the air, and cried to the heavens in a high-pitched wail: “Ugolino!!!! Save yourself! Eat us! Eat us, father!” (Paraphrasing the heck out of this passage.)

The whole class burst out laughing. The teacher, you see, was morbidly obese. Probably one of the largest people I have ever known. The sight of his gigantic, quivering, gesturing body at the head of the room moved the entire class of pubescent shits, myself included, to moist-eyed peals of laughter.
And now, forty years later, my eyes were moist again for a different reason. Now, I could only feel how much that teacher cared about us. I recalled his proficiency in four languages. And remembered how he’d died when barely into his forties, a victim of his own overworked heart.

I hadn’t thought of that lesson in years. That the memory should pop into my mind in all its freakish glory—cannibalism and poetry entwined—because of a strangely named bottle of wine drunk eight months into a pandemic is one of those stranger-than-fiction scenes you’d never attempt to stick in a story. Or would you?

Photo by MadMax Chef on Unsplash

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe


04 June 2021

Mr. Limpet Reports His Pandemic Reading is WAY Up!


I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they are “not a big reader.” Whenever I hear that, my mind conjures images of bigness lifted from children’s literature. I see NC Wyeth’s painting of a fairy-tale giant strolling across a beach while a gaggle of children look on, lost in their own imaginations. Or I start wondering what might happen if Roald Dahl’s BFG decided to break into a library at night.

In fact these people are trying to gently indicate that they don’t read often. And that’s okay. I don’t sky-dive often. I don’t restore cars or motorcycles. I’ve never joined a knitting circle. To each his own.

But what these speakers, if they’re American, probably don’t realize is how close they are to the norm. The typical American reads four books a year. (That average is skewed heavily by the nation’s hard-stop non-readers.)

At a conference of booksellers some years back, I listened as a clever bookseller flashed an image of Amazon’s logo on the screen. “This is what we’re told is ruining our business,” she told her audience. “But what I’d like to suggest is that it’s really this…”

Her finger hit the remote. Up on the screen, Amazon’s logo was suddenly joined by tons of other logos. For Instagram. Facebook. Netflix. Hulu. ESPN Sports. I could go on. But you get the point. Bookstores, booksellers, publishing are all waging an uphill battle for our attention against a bewildering array of seemingly shinier choices. More choices than our book-loving forebears ever had.

Then came 2020. Suddenly, many of us—the most privileged, I’d argue—were spending more time at home. Suddenly, books were cool again. At least, that’s what publishers are telling the world in articles such as this one and this one. I don’t doubt what the publishers’ statistics are showing. In fact, I find these stories fascinating. But I think it’s a mistake to bank on Covid behaviors sticking around for long. We all have a ferocious desire to get back to normal, whatever that means. This other article, discussing how African-American bookstores are faring one year after the protests, is all the evidence I need that 2020 habits are unlikely to be long-lasting.


Safely behind glass—and safe from the prying minds of three-fourths of the reading public...

Earlier this year, on a call with our agent, my wife and I listened as the agent relayed the gist of a post-pandemic Zoom-call debrief she’d attended that was presided over by the CEO of one of the Big 5 publishers. What follows are some of the things the agent heard on that call. I swear I did not make up the publisher statements. They are true to the best of my reporting ability. I cannot vouch for my own off-the-cuff comments.

Publisher: We will no longer spend money advertising our books in print (i.e., newspapers, magazines, etc.) Virtual or digital advertising is more effective. That’s where people are spending their time.
Joe: Or is that where people are more easily tracked, and thus easier to quantify and justify your spending? I don’t buy as many newspapers as I used to. But I still have a lot of magazine subscriptions. And I still read a ton of print books. No one is watching my eyeballs read (or reread) a paperback novel from the eighties. The last time that book was statistically or financially relevant to the industry was when I bought used in 1993. As for self-published books, fuhgeddaboudit. I can’t imagine traditional publishing is seriously interested—or frankly capable—of tracking how many books are read in this growing sector.

Publisher: In 2020, we saw a 33 percent growth in fiction sales. And two times the growth in debut fiction! And a 15 percent growth in nonfiction!
Joe: Homo sapiens has theoretically been roving this planet for 300,000 years. But feel free to base your corporate judgment on a single, highly unusual year that represents 0.000003333333333 of that time.

Publisher: Bestselling authors only got more popular in 2020!
Joe: What the hell did you expect? Their books are the ones we always hear about. Someone who is Not a Big Reader will reach for their books first, natch.

Publisher: We saw a 36 percent growth in children’s books! That’s because parents scrambled to find ways to entertain their kids. Even children’s picture books, considered “dead” in some circles, were hot sellers.
Joe: Slow down, Marshall McLuhan! Let’s hold off on making sweeping generalizations of the behavior of vast swaths of people. Um, did I mention I wrote a picture book? (In fact, as I was writing this piece, a bookseller friend in Florida messaged me to say that an exhausted parent walked into her store and said, “I’m looking for a children’s book called Bonehead, about Fauci.” Turns out, they were looking for my book, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. No, I am not kidding. Folks, I’m huge in St. Pete, but I digress.)


Groovy bookstores we did not visit in 2020.

Publisher: The biggest growth was in so-called “canceled” authors. Dr. Seuss was very big in 2020!
Joe: Cool! So are you guys hoping more authors are canceled?

Publisher: We sold the shite out of backlist titles in 2020! The Very Hungry Caterpillar, first pubbed in 1969, had the biggest sales year of its existence!
Joe: Ahem, yes, this too is logical. Ordinarily, the industry focuses its attention almost exclusively on new, freshly published books—and so does the press. But when you erase foot traffic and browsing, people don’t buy the heavily promoted books they just heard about on the radio or TV, but instead choose to finally get the books that have been on their TBR lists for years, which is apparently anything by James Patterson or Nora Roberts. (Please see Publisher Statement No. 3, above.) Also: RIP Eric Carle, a national treasure.

Publisher: Book sales on Amazon were big in 2020! And so were sales on Bookshop.org!
Joe: No! Stop! Now you are blowing my mind! Is there some kind of Sherlock Holmes brain cereal you geniuses have been eating? Because I need to load up my pandemic pantry with truckloads of it!

Publisher: Two places where we saw a drop in sales: brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble stores and indie bookstores.
Dr. Watson: Hold my beer, Mr d’Agnese. I do believe I might have deduced this one for myself!

Publisher: Social media is more important to book sales than previously noticed or acknowledged! People buy books they see on Instagram! Even if they don’t intend to read the book themselves, they buy it in order to show their support for a particular social media “influencer.” The actresss Amy Schumer shows a book to her 10.5 million Instagram followers, and everyone buys it!
Joe: Anthropologists pinpoint the decline of western civilization as 2021 CE, the date when major American publishers began actively cheerleading the purchasing of books that no one ever intends to read.

Publisher: People’s reading time grew during the pandemic. People bought more books because they finished their Netflix queue and were looking for things to do!
Joe: How can anyone ever finish their Netflix queue?

Publisher: In 2020 light readers grew their newfound interest, and appear to be maintaining that habit as the nation moves toward normalcy.
Joe (shouting): What’s that? I can’t hear you! The music at this Fully-Vaxxed-to-the-Maxx Party on the beach here in Fort Lauderdale is rocking the bejesus out of my eardrums! Talk to me in 2024, Chachi! Whoo-hoo!

Publisher: In the future, in-person author book tours will be reserved for bestselling authors only. All other authors will be doing Zoom tours.
Joe: Nothing to see here, folks. Move along, move along.


Mr. Limpet: currently reading...so America doesn't have to.

Publisher: It was hard to print books in 2020 because printers had to reduce staff due to Covid precautions. Also unreported in the media was the fact that the industry lost many shipping containers of books prior to or during the blocking of the Suez Canal. The containers were literally lost overboard.
Joe: Ah, but scientists did note an uptick in well-read porpoises and well-fed crustaceans, so all good!

* * *

PS: I’ve been experimenting with crazy new fonts. One example below. More to come.

See you in three weeks!





14 May 2021

Everybody is Fooking Me!


The first time my wife met my mother, we were sitting around the dining room table at my parents’ home in New Jersey. My mother had lapsed into one of her meandering stories and happened to drop the name of one of her least-favorite people. The very thought of this person galled her. A flash of anger crossed Mom’s face and she punctuated her anecdote with a final, spite-filled kicker: “That bitch!”

Horrified, my father reminded her that they had company.

Mom waved a hand at my wife. “Oh,” she said, chuckling. “It’s just an espression.”

Yes, that’s how she rolled. Bobbing on seas of anger and comedy. And that is also how she pronounced that word. She was born in Italy (if the Mussolini pic below doesn’t make that obvious) and arrived in America when she was 15 years old. She spoke English with an Italian accent her whole life, which ended in 2016. Mom was occasionally openly self-conscious about her lack of education. She’d never finished high school, but managed to learn to write and speak English with the help of a nun at the first American church she attended, in Brooklyn, New York.

I think of her every year at this time because Mother’s Day’s proximity to Easter means that at least one of my brothers will hit me up for one of Mom’s old recipes. After her funeral, I swiped the index card file box from her kitchen, and have been slowly compiling her recipes, an exhausting project that requires me to decipher her handwriting and her bizarre spellings. Recipes call for ingredients such as vinella extract, garlic gloves, buches of scallions, and cicken brests pounded into tin cotolets. But those types of errors are easier to grapple with than the wacky way she used to express—er, I mean espress herself.

Not once in my life did I ever hear her say, “Never mind!” Instead, for some reason, she’d say, “Levver mind!” Similarly, the word meanwhile became meanwise. Otherwise was always notherwise. Members of Orthodox churches or beliefs were described as Ortodosk. Angry and hungry were interchangeable. When she speculated about the future—which in her cosmology was universally bleak—she mused, “Who knows what’s gonna be?” The kitchen was her domain, but she suffered from a crazy case of butterfingers. After a loud crash and the shattering of glass or china, we’d hear her exclaim: “Oooooh, what I did!”

When we were kids, my brothers and I could not help bursting into laughter at the way she mangled the language. When it was all the rage to describe a cool kid at school as a “dude,” we were reduced to tears hearing our Mom suddenly ask of a kid she spied on the school grounds, “Who is that doo-doo?”

Kids can be cruel, and I was no angel. Whenever I broke into her accent, she’d scream: “Stop mimmying me! I’m not an idjit, you know! I made you, didn’t I?” Or she’d shake a fist at me and yell, “Hey, body, I’m gonna sawk you!” That is to say, Hey buddy, I’m gonna sock you!

Sometimes her word choices made a bizarre kind of sense. She hated using munch—ie, mulch—in her flower beds because she was convinced all it did was invite birds to scrounge through the moist bark in search of fat worms to, well, munch on. As a neighborhood cat was about to defile her roses, she lunged at it, screaming, “I’ll kill you, you munster!” (Hearing her, I immediately thought of the old TV show, The Munsters, who were in fact monsters.) She once asked me and Denise: “So, guys? Are you busy? Do you have a lot of dead-ends?” She meant to say deadlines, of course, but she had unwittingly nailed the essence of the writer’s life.

To this day, if I do something erratic while driving, Denise will remark that perhaps I’d been tutored by my mother, who was famously a terror behind the wheel. Mom came home one day lamenting that a cop had stopped her for no good reason.

Mom: But officer, I made a left on red!
Cop: Yes, I know. That’s why I stopped you!
Mom: Oh, you not gonna give me a ticket on Valentine, are you?

(Yes—the date of her infraction was February 14th.) Moved by this madwoman’s logic, the cop let her off with a warning. But for the rest of day, while driving around town, my mother was subjected to angry honks, shouts, or worse from her fellow drivers. Exasperated, she arrived home and dropped her own brand of f-bomb. “Everybody is fooking me!” she told my father. As this was not a word she used often, even my father was left struggling to comprehend what she had just said.

On one visit to their home in Jersey, we noticed that my mother kept staring at Denise in a strange way all morning. After breakfast, when we left the house to run an errand downtown, she chased us to the door, shouting at the top of her lungs: “Not till I’m dead! Not till I’m dead!” And proceeded to slam the door behind us.

Only later, when we returned, did we calm her down enough to extract the reason for her strange outburst. She pointed to the T-shirt Denise was wearing, which read, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel.

I can just imagine how she felt seeing those words on that shirt. It was bad enough that the writer Mom had given birth to had mocked her ceaselessly during his childhood. But now the ungrateful whelp had joined in matrimony with another writer. Surely one day they would mock her in print! It was all too much.


My mother’s revenge came in a manner she could not have predicted. When Denise and I were married, Denise was living in Rome, covering soccer for ESPN. I joined her there for a year, and discovered upon arrival in the Eternal City how worthless my knowledge of high school Italian truly was. I understood one out of every 10 words a Roman spoke to me. My brain unwisely seized upon any word with a Latin root that sounded like one I knew in English—only to discover that I’d mistaken a falsi amici—“false friend”—for a bonafide cognate. No, Joe, morbido in Italian does not mean morbid. A person who is noisoso is boring, not annoying.

I floundered for months, despite the tongue’s seeming simplicity. Only five vowel sounds; what could go wrong?

And yes, the longer I was there, the more the language seeped into my brain. But in strangely diabolical ways. When I attempted to speak English with visiting Americans or Brits, I sounded like a moron. Why? Because now, rather than produce the English I had known all my life, my brain was translating Italian words and syntax into English. In my newfound insanity, porcupines didn’t have quills, they had spines, because the Italian word for a quill or thorn was spina. Oh, and the animal wasn’t a porcupine, but a porcuspine. And you know what? That’s pretty much how my mother used to refer to that creature: porky-spine.

That short time abroad helped me understand Mom better than I ever had. Was it possible that she said Levver mind! because the Italian command “Lasciala!”—ie, Leave it be, Leave it there, Leave it alone—had somehow become coded in her brain for the American English way to dismiss one’s thought or concern? Given her background, she would never nail the word expression for the same reason that some Americans will be ordering expressos until the end of their days.
 
I returned from that overseas adventure with more story ideas than I could ever use. Years later, I proudly presented Mom with a mystery novel I’d written that was set in Italy. The entire book was a work of mimmying—I mean mimicry. One of the writers who reviewed it said that he was convinced the book had been written by an Italian writer, and later translated into English.* I took that as a compliment.

As for Mom, she read my book once. Then she read it again, this time laboriously underlining various situations and plot points. “You stole my stories!” she told me on a call shortly after. “I told you not to do that! What if I wanted to write them down?”

I swear I didn’t! Okay, maybe one teensy anecdote in the life of one of my characters was lifted from Mom’s childhood.

I know for a fact that she had once attempted an oral history. When I was still in elementary school, I found a tape recorder on which she had begun speaking about her childhood in wartime Italy. A childhood filled with an absentee father, Nazi soldiers encamped in her village, Allied bombings, and breathtaking scenery that she could never quite dislodge from her heart. “I don’t need your mountains,” she told my brother angrily when he moved to Colorado to attend college. “I left my mountains in Italy!”

She never completed that life story. Maybe someday I will. Until then, stories like the ones you’ve just read are the best I can do to commemorate her memory. Wherever you are, Mom, let’s remember one thing. I waited till you were gone.

* * *

* I’m fascinated by the books In Other Words, and Whereabouts, which the author Jhumpa Lahiri, a British-born American, originally wrote in Italian, a language she learned as an adult. Then she or another person subsequently translated the books into English. She also edited and translated The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories. But I haven’t read them yet. If you have, kindly share your experience in the comments.

23 April 2021

Making Fudge


Back in the 1980s a college English professor of mine shared a “stupid Hollywood” story with our class. Some genius producers released a TV mini-series on the life of the outlaw Jesse James. Whoever wrote the script read a bunch of history books to do their research. Only problem was, one of the books wasn’t nonfiction. It was (oops!) a novel. In Hollywood terms, history is free for the taking; fiction isn’t. “So now the lawyers are talking,” the professor said, his voice oozing schadenfreude.

I was much older when I finally encountered the 1983 novel the professor was probably referencing: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The author, Ron Hansen, frequently incorporates nonfictional elements in his fiction, with astonishing results. His book was the (intentional) source of the 2007 Brad Pitt/Casey Affleck movie, which reproduced much of Hansen’s gorgeous language. One of my favorite parts of both the movie and book is the lyrical description of Jesse’s character that opens Hansen’s book. (You can read much of it using Amazon’s Look Inside feature here.)

I’m a sucker for the fiction/nonfiction mind-meld. I remember reading E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime as a kid and hitting the part where magician Harry Houdini enters the life of the fictional family at the center of the book. After about a page of this, sixth-grade me stopped dead in his tracks, obsessed with knowing, “How much of this is true?”

Here’s the answer older me would impart to that young reader: Who cares? It’s fiction!

My latest story (“Mr. Tesla Likes to Watch,” AHMM, May/June 2021) features Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain working independently to solve a mystery in 1890s New York. The men have a gentleman’s wager going. Whoever cracks the case buys the other a dinner at Delmonico’s.


I’ve wanted to work them into a story ever since I discovered a truly atmospheric photo of the two of them together in Tesla’s workshop. (No, not the ones shown here.) I’m linking to the photo rather than post it here, on the advice of counsel at the firm of Sleuth & Sayers, Esq. Go look at the pic. I’ll wait. Cool, huh? That photo alone sent me on a research spree.

Things I did before writing the story:
  • The two men were members of the co-ed Players Club in New York City, founded by actor Edwin Booth as a social club for professionals in the arts. The club, located on Gramercy Park, still exists and accepts members who fit the fill and are willing to cough up the scratch. I read the modern club’s website.
  • I consulted timelines of both mens’ lives to figure out when they might have been in New York City at the same time. This was complicated by the fact that the debt-ridden Twain was living abroad during the 1890s, but somehow the pair became friends during this period.
  • I read one academic paper that summarized their correspondence.
  • I spent half a day poking around the lives and characters of the two men, limiting myself to taking only one page of notes on each.
  • Daily I prayed before the Edison/Tesla shrine in my living room. (Okay, I’m kidding about that. But for reasons involving the unwise decision to visit a local brewery on the same day it hosted a flea market we do have a shrine-like shelf in our home that memorializes that legendary feud.)

I stopped researching there. I’ve learned over the years that I’m an obsessive over-researcher. Once, determined to write a book set in Vietnam-era New York City, I convinced myself that I could not possibly start writing a word until I’d read a 900-page volume on the administration of Mayor John Lindsay. No sooner had I finished that book than I was certain—certain, I tell you!—that I had to read two of a three-volume biography on Richard Nixon. Thankfully I stopped before I did, realizing that maybe I had a little problem.

My brain now marinated in Twain/Tesla lore, I set aside my notes, and wrote the damn thing, choosing deliberately to fudge facts along the way. For me, the freedom to fudge was the only way to have fun writing such a story. Fudged fact: in the story I say Tesla walked Manhattan daily, dropping a thermometer on a string into the Hudson and East rivers, to see if their temperatures varied. Totally not true, but it seemed to fit his eccentric character, so I went with it.

I know many writers have devoted much of their work to the historic-figures-as-detective subgenre. Tesla, because of his seeming wackiness, shows up in tons of novels, often in the science fiction and fantasy genre. (Did you catch the late David Bowie’s portrayal of Tesla in the 2006 movie, The Prestige? That film was based on a novel by author Christopher Priest.) But that’s just a start. Without really trying, I poked around online and found mysteries that team Tesla with Arthur Conan Doyle, or Doyle with Houdini. I bet I would love reading those books, but I’m not sure I could maintain enough interest in a specific real-life figure to devote more than one of my own stories to them. A complete mystery series? No way.



For me, the joy of using a historic figure boils down to nailing those peoples’ eccentricities, and finding neat ways to play with them. Twain is legendary for his witty one-liners. In writing his dialogue, I repurposed some things he did say, and invented a few of my own.

My social life is filled with news of the exploits and projects of various narrative nonfiction writers. The journalist in me loves reading their work and seeing how they pulled together mountains of abstruse research to fashion a highly readable historical account. But historical mysteries are freeing precisely because they can be whimsical. 

Also, in writing this story, I experienced a difference in focus. In a typical story, I’m primarily working to fit together pieces of a plot. In this story, that primacy shifted to character. I had these parts (i.e., a real person’s known tics or backstory) and I was working to see how I could layer them into the story. How would Twain sound talking about a case? How would each man’s expertise impact the way he investigated that case? Who would be more methodical? Who unwittingly becomes the Watson?

I answered these questions for myself, as you’ll see. But now that I’ve done so, I’m not sure I could return to those characters again. The novelty has worn off, in a sense. On a second outing, I worry that their behaviors would come off as shtick, not charming. And of course, I’m wary that other writers have used these men as fictional characters.

But who knows? There was one amazing letter real-life Twain wrote real-life Tesla that blew my freaking mind. It could be easily turned into a story…or a book…or a movie… The only problem is, it’s so strange no one would ever believe it was true. Which how we got here in the first place.




* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe

josephdagnese.com 

02 April 2021

Giving It Away for Free


I don’t think I fit the profile of a sap or a patsy, but there’s an argument that I’m a bit of a sucker. Thus far this year I’ve read and commented on two full nonfiction books, a nonfiction book proposal, and a sample chapter intended to accompany that proposal. All works in progress, all written by people other than myself, and all of my time given free for the asking.

I didn’t see what I’d committed to until I was in the thick of it, feeling like a freelance editor (or college professor) without the income, and wondering why I hadn’t gotten more of my own writing done. Just as that realization hit me, a fresh email popped into my inbox. It was from an acquaintance here in town. She asked if I’d consider reading her middle-grade novel and advise her on how to sell it. She offered payment, which was nice. But since I had now switched to overcompensation mode, I turned her down flat. (And feel bad about it, to boot!)

I’m determined to say no more often in 2021. I’ll check back with you to let you know how well I’m doing on that score.

But yes, I give it away for free often. And when the experience goes well, I feel like I’ve made a difference. I’m naturally drawn to people who are committed to their writing, and aren’t afraid to work to take it to the next level. Some years ago, my wife and I “donated” (i.e., accepted no payment) for a weekend class we ran for a local writing program on how to write nonfiction book proposals. Three out of our 15 students went on to get book deals with traditional publishers. A fourth decided to self publish what is shaping up to be a really fine book that she will use to promote her business. We felt awesome hearing those success stories.

But other times the help I offer quickly becomes a time-suck. The dividing line is always the person’s level of commitment. How hard they are willing to work. How easy they expect the journey to be. And, I dare say, how quickly they are willing to give up.

Once, there was a well-heeled business dude whose only daughter had written an inspirational book. She wanted Daddy to front the costs of the “publisher” she had found on the Internet. “Is $10,000 a reasonable amount to pay to get a book published?” Daddy-O asked on a phone call that quickly gobbled an hour of my time that I’ll never get back.

Another person—an accomplished entrepreneur—insisted on paying me to coach him in the writing of a book proposal. Now, next to inhaling rotisserie chickens and slices of pizza in record time, nonfiction book proposals are arguably my largest area of professional expertise. They’re tricky to write. Ultimately, they’re a sales document, designed to sell a publisher on the (always nonfiction) book you want to write—and to land the best price while doing so. But boy, they cannot read like that. They have to wow editors with compelling writing, too. Most people who’ve worked in business have no idea how to write such a chimera, let alone the book they feel they have inside them. Hours and meetings into his project, my entrepreneur friend threw up his hands in frustration and said, “Do you think my time would be better spent hiring a ghostwriter like you?”


Things I'd be enjoying if I weren
t reading your book...

I spent long (unpaid) afternoons with another businessman—what is it with you business dudes?—who wanted to write a memoir. First we mapped out the plot of his book on a whiteboard, and later spent hours organizing scenes on index cards and rearranging their order on the giant conference table in his office.

He was ecstatic. After years of simply talking about the book he wanted to write, he could finally see a way to getting it done. Look—it was outlined to the max! All he had to do was go home, trip down the path mapped by the index cards, and write!

Before Covid did a number on our social lives, I ran into him at a bar, were he made the most hilarious proposition I’ve ever heard. “I just can’t seem to find the time to write the damn thing,” he confessed. “Hey! What if you came over and sat in my office for an hour every day? You could work on your projects, and I could work on mine! It would be like—”

He paused, struggling to find the right word.

“Babysitting?” was the one that popped into my mind.

Believe me, I know writing is not something that comes naturally to a lot of people. You could very well be an accomplished individual in your chosen profession, and never have had to write anything longer than that one 10-page term paper you wrote in college. The thought of completing a short story, or an entire book, is daunting.

But what ticked me off recently was a text sent to my wife’s mobile phone at 8:30 pm on a Sunday night. “A friend of mine has a book she wants to get published,” a neighbor wrote. “Are there any tips or sites you would recommend?”

I hit the roof. Unknowingly, this person had blundered into one of my pet peeves. Yes, I know the world of publishing can sometimes seem opaque to people who aren’t immersed in it, but—call me crazy—are we not living in a golden age of information? If you’re passionate about something, you ought to be able to find the information you need to chase your writing dreams.

I wonder if I’m wrong about this. In fact, I write these next words with some trepidation because I fear I am on the verge of becoming a Grumpy Old Writer Man. So please bear with me.

My publishing path is similar to that of many other writers. I started writing short stories in the 1970s, when I was barely into my teens. I knew no one else who wanted to do what I did. And yet, here are the things one would-be writer kid knew, I repeat, in the Seventies:

* I knew how to format a short story manuscript.
* I knew the addresses of the markets I wanted to crack—and sometimes the names of the editors.
* I knew I ought to mail a SASE when I mailed my story in.
* I knew I’d have to get my parents to drive me to the post office. It was too far to walk, and unsafe to ride my bike to get there.
* I knew I’d get rejections, but I also knew I would just have to keep sending stories out.
* I knew there would be still more rejections, and that I would just have to keep sending out stories.
* I was prepared to repeat the last two steps ad nauseam.

How did I know such things in the 1970s, before the Internet as we know it was available, and before you could ask a friend to text working writers on your behalf? 

Simple. I found it all out at my public library. The top shelf of the reference section had a copy of the LMP (Literary Market Place) and an outdated copy of Writer’s Market. That was pretty much all I needed. That, and copies of the magazines I loved that gave me the audacious notion of seeing my own stories in print.


More things I’d enjoy if I weren't reading your novel-in-progress.

Later, as I got older, there were other libraries with more generous resources. One held back issues of magazines such as Writer’s Digest or The Writer. And when I began to think I could write a novel, I scoured paperback racks in stationery stores and bookstores. The book pages of local newspapers were still rich with book reviews back then. If you thought critically and maybe even opportunistically, you could mine all those resources for clues to imprints, agents, and editors.

The Sunday night text crystalized my intention, folks. I have to stop taking the road to Suckerdom. The next time someone asks how to get a book published, I intend to encourage them to do their own research first. To think about how hard they’re willing to work, and how badly they want it.

Because I suspect that if you’re bugging a writer on a Sunday night, you are probably not really looking for information, but for a quick ’n’ dirty “secret.” A way to hack a profession or an accomplishment that has historically never been easy.

There is only one secret, and that is this: Everything you need to succeed or fail is inside you already. If you’re lucky, it’s as stubborn as a teenage kid, and just as resilient. Find that kid, and keep them close. They’re the only writer buddy you need.


Writing is hard. Thats the point. It may be the only point.

* * * 

One of my (professionally paid) ghostwriting projects pubs next month. The author was a dream to work with. Hope to share news about that next time.

See you three weeks!

Joe