Thursday, December 6, 2012

CAN THE ENDLESS WAR BE ENDED?


The timing is remarkable but not planned, in that our publication of The Inbetween People by Emma McEvoy (January 2013 in the USA and November 2012 by Ashgrove Press in London), coincides with the recent vote by the U.N. to give Palestine non-member observer status. Just weeks earlier , Israel assassinated leaders of Hamas in Gaza and Hamas responded by launching rockets into Israel. Israel retaliated with airstrikes causing more than10 times as many Palestinians killed and vast property destroyed (Gaza is about twice as large as Manhattan with a population not unlike that of Manhattan’s one million six-hundred thousand). A cease fire was then followed by Netanyahu’s plan to build new settlements separating Jerusalem from the West Bank, in violation of a previous U. N. resolution. World-wide attention was now refocused on one of the most explosive areas of today’s world, with media largely content to describe these events by reporting the conflicting statements coming from Arab and Israeli leadership (“he said/she said”), speculating on what might follow, showing pictures of the dead and dying and of buildings aflame. It all pointed toward the likelihood of a worsening stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians, one which seems certain to bring on ever higher, and bloodier, casualties on both sides.

In short, the decades long news reports about Palestinians and Israelis accusing one another of deceptions and intransigence, the ups and downs of the Intifadas and of the Occupation, of killings and counter-killings have not abated and continue to worsen. But rarely does one read about the effects this has on the silent majority of people caught up in this world of toil and trouble. And it is this group that Emma McEvoy gives voice to.

Her novel chronicles the friendship between Avi Goldberg, the son of a Jewish pioneer, and Saleem, an Israeli Arab. When I first read the manuscript I was haunted by it—and still am; by the setting and the language, appreciating the vise so many reasonable and innocent people—Jews and Arabs alike—are caught in, living in this land of troubles. This beautiful and touching first novel (from a 39-year-old Irish writer) depicts the anguish, individual acts of bravery, and small hopes amidst despair, while getting to the crux of the real story—the emotional story and price paid by those “inbetween” —without political argument.

That the “Land of Milk and Honey” God promised the Israelites has turned bitterly sour is beyond dispute. And my belief is that things will never get better until people world-wide can consider what life is like for most people living in this land. The image that comes to mind is of ordinary people squeezed between two radicalized forces, compassion replaced by the growing Talibanization of both Jewish and Palestinian leaders alike.

Some of the things these warring factions say or do are both laughable and despairing at the same time. Two years ago I read about a young settler from Brooklyn, New York who, after bringing his family to live in a contested settlement on the West Bank, supported his anti-Palestinian bias by saying “God promised this land to the Jews, so of course it should be ours.” Or, when one thinks about it, how many Jews in both America and abroad can be against Morsi’s proposed new constitution for Egypt where Mullahs are to have some influence in the government and readily side with Egypt’s secular protesters; yet have no quarrel with the notion of Israel being a Jewish state with Palestinians having second class citizenship? Again, where did compassion and reason go.

Yet there are signs of things possibly changing.

To begin with several groups started by Jews have been calling for reconciliation for some time and gathering more strength and numbers as time goes on, like J Street or Peace Now, both based in Washington DC. Or Jews for Justice in Palestine based in London

In a bold move on Friday, December 5, three rabbis of the B’nai Jeshurun synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan sent an email to their congregation enthusiastically supporting the U.N./Palestine  vote. The next day The New York Times reported that the email stated, “The vote at the U.N. yesterday is a great moment for us as citizens of the world. This is an opportunity to celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition.” Immediately criticism rained down from members of their congregation, who were shocked that they had taken such a positive stance, likening it to a “warm embrace” of the PLO. Notwithstanding this resistance, as well as opposition towards the vote from both the US and Israel, this is perhaps the beginning of some real movement toward autonomy for Palestine, opening the possibility of a two-state solution.

Alison Weir is a freelance journalist and scholar who has lectured at Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard Law School, Yale, The Naval Postgraduate School and elsewhere. She has also given briefings on Capital Hill. On her website “If Americans Knew” http://www.ifamericansknew.org/history/realstory.html, you can find articles based on her research and extensive travel during the height of the 2nd intifada, to flash points in the West Bank and Gaza rarely visited by American journalists. Investigating the origin of the Palestine-Israel conflict she reminds us that “What really happened was that the Zionist movement, from the beginning, looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the indigenous Arab population so that Israel could be a wholly Jewish state, or as much as was possible. Land bought by the Jewish National Fund was held in the name of the Jewish people and could never be sold or even leased back to Arabs (a situation which continues to the present).The vast majority of the population of Palestine, by the way, had been Arabic since the seventh century A.D. (Over 1200 years.)” She goes on to add “One further point: being Jewish ourselves, the position we present here is critical of Zionism but is in no way anti-Semitic. We do not believe that the Jews acted worse than any other group might have acted in their situation. The Zionists (who were a distinct minority of the Jewish people until after WWII) had an understandable desire to establish a place where Jews could be masters of their own fate, given the bleak history of Jewish oppression. Especially as the danger to European Jewry crystallized in the late 1930’s and after, the actions of the Zionists were propelled by real desperation. But so were the actions of the Arabs. The mythic “land without people for a people without land” was already home to 700,000 Palestinians in 1919. This is the root of the problem, as we shall see.”

Can the Endless War be Ended? Read The Inbetween People and share your thoughts with me.



Marty

Friday, September 28, 2012

EMAILS


Since so much of every day in this publisher’s life is spent sending and receiving emails, it occurred to me that these three, being of particular interest to me, might be of interest to you as well, for they all provide insights into the business of books.


The first came from Ivan Goldman, whose last novel. ISAAC: A Modern Fable, has to do with the trials of a writer. You must read his blog, below, before you continue reading my response.

The second email, from me to Charles McGrath, Greg Cowles, and Scott Heller, was a way of clearing my mind of disputatious attitudes. McGrath was a wonderful and much appreciated editor of the Book Review who I had met on several occasions before he was replaced by Sam Tanenhaus, but who still writes occasional reviews and columns. Greg Cowles is one of the assistant editors there now, a friendly, literate and interesting guy. I used to meet with him twice a year to present advance galley copies and occasionally have lunch with him. Scott Heller, in charge of the weekly Culture Desk, assigns reviews to the two daily reviewers who cover fiction, Janet Maslin and Michiko Kakutani, plus an occasional guest reviewer. That we’ve never had a second review there for the past 32 years cannot be attributed to him, as he’s only been at the Culture Desk since moving from the Boston Globe a couple of years ago.

Enough said. May you find what follows worth your investment of time. And your feedback is always welcome.

Marty Shepard


----- Original Message -----

From: Ivan G.
To: Martin Shepard
Cc: Judith Shepard
Sent: Friday, September 28, 2012 11:56 AM
Subject: Sorry

Marty, Judy–

My piece about the author’s naked pitch left out the fact that you did some expensive advertising for Isaac. I meant no offense, was writing generically, but it was thoughtless – the result of writing fast. I corrected the column.

Best,    Ivan

http://redroom.com/member/ivan-g-goldman/blog/authors-and-the-naked-sell


From: Martin Shepard
To: Ivan G.

Wonderful blog, funny and true. No need to apologize, but your thoughtfulness is still appreciated. Happens to us all the time as well: spectacular reviews are rarely followed by spectacular sales.

As far as promotion goes, much of it is silent, at least here. But I tell you this: We’ve been printing about 500 galley copies at considerable expense for each release and paying Baker & Taylor, then Library Journal and Booklist to do special mailings to a hand picked list of librarians. They send out 300 copies to librarians (it costs us over $1,000 for these 300 extra galley copies. We used to print about 150 copies before we started this project) and about $700 more to ship them to these folks who in turn charge fees for getting them out to the librarians. All this to increase orders and readers, hopefully. Frankly I don’t know if this is profitable or not, for only sales will determine that. The other 200 copies go out to reviewers and bloggers, agents, scouts etc. All this stuff costs a fair amount: fair to say–what with the monthly PW ads, it adds up easily to a couple of grand per title.

But it does get our name around, and our authors names around to those people who are at the heart of the book business.

Random House does not send out 300 galley copies of every novel they do to librarians. Too expensive for them. They will take out full page ads in the NY TIMES for a “Big Book,” but most of their titles are “Little”: It’s a publishing philosophy of “throw out a lot of titles, see which swim better, and follow with ads while the rest sink.” But of course all authors would wish that their publishers would take out a full page in the NY TIMES for about six to ten grand as a symbol of their support.

When we started 35 years ago with a full page in the Times Book Review, announcing our first Second Chance Press list–with some review quotes and a coupon at the bottom to order any of these six titles, the cost was a little over $600. It pleased the authors but only $60 worth of orders came in. I realized that if we kept advertising in the Times we’d be out of business within a year.

I always thought it better to put a small ad in PW, where serious readers read (a publication that has supported us greatly–and who we wanted to support in our own small way as the Big Six conglomerates havecut their advertisements down to a trickle), and putting our books in the hands of librarians where they might place orders for a system, is a much better approach.

We’ll see.

It’s a tough world out there for authors, and for publishers like us who are happy just keeping our noses above water in sharing good writers with those few people who still like to read good novels that aren’t written by famous people (and like Romney, we’re content to forget about that 47% or more who otherwise spend their spare time on smart phones, tweeting, facebooking, or watching television exclusively: the only attitude we share with Romney).

Keep up your drumbeats. They are all readable and, essentially, true as Truth can be.

Sending this correspondence and your blog out to all our other authors who are still alive and have email addresses, to our staff and agents we know – about 300 people. Worth reading it all, I think and sharing the current situations concerning writers and publishers alike.

Marty


* * *

----- Original Message -----

From: Martin Shepard
To: scott heller ; greg cowles
Cc: Chip McGrath
Sent: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 9:51 PM
Subject: Making peace with the Times and more fine reviews for DEAD ANYWAY-

Dear people:

You all work at the best newspaper in the country and I've finally come to terms with why my frustration level rises so often when it comes to coverage of our titles at the Times, and it comes down to this: that we have two different agendas.

One of the sustaining things for us is discovering, amongst the 5,000 plus submissions we receive each year, some extraordinary novelists that were invariably turned down by the six major conglomerates and their myriad imprints. There is a thrill that comes from being able to start, in effect, a "book club" of sorts where we can share their gifts with the public. Most actual book clubs recommend books to other members and their choices are usually based on reviews they read in major newspapers and magazines.

I've come to realize, with no bitterness, that the leading newspaper in the country (and one I still subscribe to for daily delivery out here in Sag Harbor) has its own agenda, which does not put great emphasis on discovering gems from relatively unknown--or new writers--published by small independent presses like ours.

So be it, no more harangues. But I do want to stay in touch and let you know what you might be missing. To that extent I attach all 13 excellent reviews we've had for Chris Knopf's 10th thriller, just published two weeks ago, starting with starred reviews in Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal. Plus, not attached, a 14th recommendation from Nancy Pearl on her NPR Book Lust program.

Whether true or not, I can't help but think that if Hachette, or Random House, or St Martins, or Penguin, or Simon and Schuster published DEAD ANYWAY, it would have gotten major coverage at the Times, both at the Culture Desk and in the Book Review. Being heavy advertisers, which we are not, has to count for something, and there is no use lamenting the way the world works. It simply is what it is.

But our excitement in discovering and being able to publish people like Leonard Rosen and Chris Knopf and David Freed and other mystery writers--as well as non-mystery novelists like Daniel Klein and Charles Davis and Emma McEvoy, and Marc Shuster among many others, remains undiminished, And rather than fault the Times for having a different agenda than ours, it makes me cherish those publications and bloggers and journals that share our values.

Wishing you all well and hope you get to see what others have to say about Chris Knopf’s remarkable new novel.

Marty



Monday, June 25, 2012

IN PRAISE OF EXCEPTIONAL TALENT

I’m taking a short vacation, in this posting from criticizing any of the absurdities in the world of publishing—as in my last critique of the Pulitzer Prizes—except for mentioning this: On June 14, Charles Isherwood, reviewing the revival of Harvey in The New York Times, wrote that “Mary Chase’s play is by no means a work of great profundity. The Pulitzer Prize committee may have never erred more egregiously than it did in favoring Harvey over Tennessee Williams’ first masterwork, The Glass Menagerie.” (I would add, as another example, that as good a playwright as Edward Albee is—and he’s received five Pulitzers since 1965—one of those was awarded in 1975, for Seascape, which my wife and I saw a few years back at a revival at the Bay Street theater in Sag Harbor. I thought it was ludicrous, but was drawn to the theater because I liked other Albee plays and it had that magic “Pulitzer Prize” attached. It’s possible that all plays in 1975 were stinkers and Albee’s was the best of a bad batch—though they never withheld giving an award that year. So much for my contention that journalists have no business making awards outside the area of journalism).




Okay. Enough of that! I write now to sing praises, the first being for an extraordinary article written by Lon Kirschner, our cover artist for the past 21 years. Have you ever wondered what goes into making a good book jacket? Has anyone ever written about this before? Not to my knowledge. Coming from an art background originally, I would contend that, while there are other good designers around, there is no-one better than Lon, and I hope you will go to his short essay which appeared in Small Press Reviews, before you continue reading this blog. You’ll not only read an elucidating story but also see some of the graphics he’s come up with. And I’d be most pleased to share his talents with anyone looking for striking covers that are so well suited to each individual story.


Now, if you’ve finished reading Designing for a Small Press. Big Rewards. (smaller fees), here’s what’s next: An interview that the 2011 Edgar Award Winner Bruce DeSilva (for his first mystery, Rogue Island) conducted with David Freed, author of Flat Spin. Bruce was predicting that David would win a similar award in 2013. The back and forth between these two journalists about writing is one of the more stimulating dialogues I’ve seen in some time:


A few months ago, David Freed sent me his first novel and asked me if I would read it and write a few words of praise for the book jacket. I had several reasons to say no.


At the time, I was working feverishly to finish the third novel in my Mulligan crime series, and I resented the interruption. Besides, the Associated Press, for which I write book reviews from time to time, has a policy against its writers making commercial endorsements. And I’d never heard of David Freed. I had no reason think the book would be any good. But I cracked Flat Spin open anyway and was immediately hooked.


Before I reached the last page, I knew this newcomer had written one of the best crime novels I’d read all year. So, instead of writing a bit of book jacket copy, I cranked out a full-blown review.


I also decided that I, and my readers, would like to get to know David better, so I interviewed him for this blog. Here’s how the conversation went:


BD: Pitch Flat Spin to us in 25 words or less.


DF: A wise-cracking government assassin-turned-flight instructor is asked by his ex-wife to help investigate the murder of the man she dumped him for.


BD: One of the reasons I like crime novels is that they are usually written by people who led other lives before becoming writers–unlike those who go straight from MFA programs to writing careers. That gives crime novelists something real to say about the world we live in. You’ve had more experiences than most. Tell us about that, and about how it enriches your work.


DF: There is no better training ground when it comes to writing fiction, in my opinion, than writing nonfiction. I spent nearly 20 years doing just that, largely covering the military and law enforcement as a newspaper reporter. I hung out with homicide detectives and convicted killers, rubbed elbows with spies and commandos, covered a war, watched a few autopsies, once witnessed an execution, and interviewed literally thousands of people, from the truly heroic to rabid sociopaths. And the cool part was, I got paid to do it—although not very well, as I’m sure you can appreciate, Bruce, being a former newspaper guy yourself.


BD: Since you’re being modest, I’ll add that during your stint at The Los Angeles Times, you were a solo finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and shared in the Pulitzer for coverage of the Rodney King riots.


DF: After leaving the world of daily print journalism, I labored briefly as an investigator for CBS News, helping cover the OJ Simpson murder case, before landing work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, writing for national magazines, and as an asset within the U.S. intelligence community. As a recreational outlet, I also earned a pilot’s license along the way. I suppose I always figured that all of that real world experience would eventually lend itself in some fashion to the less-than-real world of crime fiction. That I‘ve been able to incorporate some of my experiences in my first novel has been very satisfying.


BD: Flat Spin, the title of your debut thriller, is the name of a complex, treacherous flight maneuver that only the most accomplished pilots should risk. Have you tried it? And if so, did you live through it?


DF: Chuck Yeager inadvertently entered a flat spin in The Right Stuff and crashed big time. Ditto Maverick and Goose in Top Gun—and Goose died! If pilot gods like that couldn’t recover from a flat spin, there’s no way a mere mortal pilot like me ever would. I’ve never attempted one and I hope I never will. However, the hero of my book, Cordell Logan, flew Air Force A-10 Warthogs in Desert Storm. He probably wouldn’t hesitate to give it a shot under the right circumstances because that’s the kind of balls-out dude he is.


BD: Logan is tough, all right, but he’s vulnerable, too. When he longs for his beautiful ex-wife Savannah, his pain is so real that the reader’s heart will ache. Something you know from experience, or are you just good at making the love stuff up?


DF: I’ve never been divorced, fortunately, but I certainly have had my heart broken a time or two. Like all of us, I also can count no shortage of friends and relatives who’ve gone through traumatic break-ups of their own. Some, like Logan, never get over them. The searing emotional pain that comes with watching a special person walk out of your life is endemic to us as a species; it’s an experience to which virtually every reader can relate. Which makes our work as a writers that much more relatable when making the “love stuff” up.


BD: I have been divorced, but when it comes to writing love scenes, I freeze. Fortunately, I am now married to one of our greatest living poets, Patricia Smith. So when I need some of that “love stuff,” I call her over and say, “Honey, what do you think these two love birds would say or do here?” I do feel comfortable touching on my characters’ religion, however, so I was fascinated by Logan’s. His recent conversion to Buddhism doesn’t seem to be going very well, his struggles to find inner peace providing the funniest parts of the book. Anything autobiographical about that?


DF: I’m not a Buddhist, though I am intrigued with the religion and admire those who strive to achieve its Zen-like tranquility. Buddhism boiled down espouses little more than the Golden Rule. It encourages a peaceful, nonjudgmental, live-and-let-live lifestyle. Nothing wrong with that. Logan’s problem is that he is a man quick to action and does not suffer fools gladly. Plus, he has a weakness for carne asada burritos, which true Buddhists, who are generally vegetarian, tend to frown on. In that regard, there may well be some autobiographical linkage between Logan and me. I doubt I could ever fully embrace any religion that rejects meat burritos.


BD: Or, in my case, Irish whiskey and cigars. In describing your life experiences, you downplayed your technical expertise, which includes scripting computerized training simulations for the Defense Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army’s Battle Command Lab. Most novelists who have a lot of technical expertise are clumsy writers. Your prose is both muscular and musical—and sometimes verges on poetry. Where did you learn to write like that?


DF: Thanks for the compliment. Truthfully, though, I’m not sure how to answer the question. Writing is a craft. The longer you hone any craft, the more competent you should become. I believe that writing is rewriting. The only way to write well, for me anyway, is to never be content with what you’ve written. Rewrite your prose until it sings to your ear. Always strive to improve it, even if it means rewriting it a dozen times or more.


BD: Amen. People think they read with their eyes, but they really read with their ears. Years ago, the late great Robert B. Parker told me that people love his Spenser private detective novels for the same reason they like certain songs. They like the way they sound. Flat Spin, of course, is not really a P.I. novel. How would you place it in the various crime sub-genres? Which writers in that tradition most influenced you, and how?


DF: For better or worse, I’m not sure Flat Spin falls squarely in any defined sub-genre of crime fiction. It’s not a police procedural. It’s not a cozy.


BD: Well, it sure isn’t a cozy. I’d categorize it as a literary thriller.


DF: If anything, I’d say it’s a funny whodunit. Logan is a hardboiled bad ass in the mold of Parker’s Spenser. He’s also a sardonic smart ass ala Gregory McDonald’s Fletch. Toss in a reluctant amateur sleuth who flies his own airplane like “Sky King,” and what you have, I hope, is a book that humors readers more than it horrifies them.


BD: Whatever it is, it’s damned good. Tell us about your writing process. Do you outline or make it up as you go along? Do you polish as you go, or do you bang out a rough first draft and then revise?


DF: I start out with a fairly basic outline to the extent that I know where the story begins and where it will end. I’ll add a few major plot beats to the skeleton. Then I’ll go back to the beginning of the outline and, in narrative fashion, with as much detail as I can reasonably muster, script the first several dozen pages of the book. It’s not unlike a football coach who lays out the first 10 or 15 offensive plays he wants his team to run. Doing so creates foundation and rhythm, both of which help dictate the rest of the game. I’ve found that some of my most satisfying creative turns come on the fly, when I allow my characters to speak to me. Holding fast to a set outline, for me anyway, does not allow much maneuver room.


BD: I do pretty much the same thing, minus the initial outline. I start off with a vague idea of what the book will be about and then just set my characters in motion to see what they will do and say. I find that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, my readers probably won’t either. So tell me, what do you read for pleasure, and what recent books–other than mine, of course–do you most admire?


DF: By virtue of my journalistic background, I tend to read a lot of nonfiction, especially biographies, political exposes, American history, and modern adventure. I like a lot of Jon Krakhauer’s stuff. Likewise the work of Sebastian Junger. If I become particularly interested in a subject–the JFK assassination and the decisions that led George W. Bush to invade Iraq are two recent examples that come to mind–I’ll typically read many books in that area, one after the other. As far as fiction goes, I’m all over the map. Nobody did it better than Faulkner and Steinbeck, in my opinion. Relatively little-known James Salter is certainly among the most brilliant American wordsmiths alive today. I read “City of Thieves” not long ago by David Benioff and thought it exceptional. I’m currently reading “Matterhorn,” a very impressive novel about Marines fighting in Vietnam written by Karl Marlantes, himself a former grunt. Truth be told, I tend not to read many mystery-thrillers these days, if only because I don’t want to be envious of authors who are vastly more skilled than me, and also because I don’t want to subconsciously imprint their work on mine. That said, however, I am truly looking forward to reading “Cliff Walk,” the much-anticipated second Mulligan crime novel written by a certain Edgar Award-winning author whom we both know but who shall remain nameless here ‘lest I be accused of flagrant pandering.


BD: Pander all you want, pal. So what’s next for David Freed and Cordell Logan?


DF: If all goes according to plan, the next Logan mystery will hit the shelves in 2013. I won’t give too much away other than to say something dramatic happens to Logan that will change his life forever. How’d that for a tease?


BD: Perfect. I can hardly wait. Any advice for aspiring crime novelists?


DF: Live as large a life as you can–and take good notes. That way, you’ll have material that resonates with at least a patina of authenticity when you ultimately do decide to try your hand at that first novel. Then write. Don’t go to Starbucks and say you’re going there to write when we all know you’re really there to eye the local talent. Don’t go to endless workshops and talk about being a writer. Write. Even if it means missing a couple hours’ sleep a night, getting up early before your day job begins, or staying home when your friends are out partying, you cannot be a writer without walling yourself off from the world, planting your butt in a chair, and writing. Maintain a schedule. Tell yourself you’re going to crank out a certain number of words each day, then do it. It’s like going to the gym. You’ll never build any muscles by working out once a week or every couple of weeks. Build up a head of steam and maintain it. The late great John Gregory Dunn once described writing as nothing more than laying one length of pipe in front of another until the pipeline is complete. Dunn definitely had it down.


BD: Great advice. The main difference between a novelist and someone who aspires to be one is discipline. I urge the wannabes not to be overwhelmed by the seemingly huge task of writing a whole book. Just write 800 words a day every day and you can finish an 80,000-word crime novel in 100 days. That’s how Parker managed to write 70 novels between the age of 42, when he started, and 82, when he died at his writing desk.


DF: And one more thing: don’t share your crime novel with anybody until it’s 100 percent finished and as good as you can possibly make it. Little will undermine a writer in mid-project faster than the often half-baked creative suggestions of otherwise well-intentioned acquaintances who wouldn’t know good writing if it kissed them on the lips. It’s your book. Don’t let anybody else tell you how to write it until a reputable publisher offers you a seven-figure deal. Then rewrite it exactly as they say!


BD: When you win the Edgar Award for best first novel, where are you going to display it?


DF: LOL, as my kids would say. Hey, don’t get me wrong. I’d love to win an Edgar. From your lips to the Buddha’s ears. But I learned long ago that a writer’s true reward comes not in plaques or shiny pieces of hardware to put up on the mantle (or in a box up in the attic, as the case may be in my house). It comes in connecting with the public. If Flat Spin brings readers pleasure, helps them escape for a few hours the pressures and frustrations of daily life that we all endure, I will be more than happy.


BD: That’s how I always felt about awards during my long journalism career, but as a novelist I love awards. Why? Because they help sell books! One last thing, David. Where can we find you online?


DF: David-Freed.com. Thanks, Bruce!


BD: You can find my review of David’s novel here. You can order a print or Kindle edition of David’s book here:






I welcome your comments. Go to our Newsletter to learn more.


Marty



Sunday, April 22, 2012

THE WIZARD OF OZ AND THE PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION

Surprised and appalled that there was no Pulitzer Prize for Fiction awarded this year, I sent Sig Gissler, a professor at Columbia’s School of Journalism and the administrator for the awards, an email on April 19, expressing my dismay. We exchanged emails the very next day, which ultimately opened my eyes to a previously held assumption that the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction represented the very best novel written in a calendar year. Not so, I discovered: not necessarily for this year, but for both past and future years to come.

For those unfamiliar with the process of awarding their Fiction Prize (I being one of these “unfamiliars” before this) here’s how it works. Three jurors are chosen by the Board to recommend three finalists. They are usually critics but may also include a novelist. In this recent failure to award a Fiction prize, one novelist, Michael Cunningham and two book critics —Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson—were asked to process 341 submissions over a six month period of time and recommend three finalists to the 20 member Board, who must then pick the winner by a majority vote (10 votes are required as only 18 Board members can vote; the administrator and president of the University being non-voting members). The Board, according to their own description “consists mostly of major newspaper editors and executives, along with six academics including the president of Columbia University and the dean and administrator of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism [Sig Gissler], and it elects its own members for a three-year term. Members of the board and the jurors are selected with close attention given to professional excellence and affiliation, as well as diversity in terms of gender, ethnic background, geographical distribution, and the size of newspapers.”

In my email I quoted from a letter I received from Kurt Vonnegut 13 years ago, concerning the difficulties of getting 90 year old Berry Fleming, a distinguished Southern novelist (whose 12 novels we published), honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. “The Academy,” he said “is much like an Exxon tanker with the skipper dead drunk in the lavatory off the engine room. It doesn’t act the way it’s supposed to. I myself no longer attend meetings because of its lack of maneuverability. Too many good writers (and no doubt painters and composers and historians and architects and so on) have gone to their graves believing that they lacked that indefinable certain something which kept them from joining the cream of the cream. Irwin Shaw and James Jones and Richard Yates have failed to get in for a couple of maddening reasons at least: first, poets campaign for each other like politicians, so that most of the writers honored are poets now, and second, painters and musicians and so on get to vote on writers, too, and have never heard of Yeats or Fleming, and are often log-rollers. ‘If you’ll vote for an artist you never heard of in my field, I’ll vote for one I never heard of in yours, and so on'.”

I told Sig that I had no knowledge of whether similar log-rolling played a part in choosing a Fiction winner this year, or simply the fact that this group is ill suited for choosing a winner. There is no doubt that this Board is equipped to make Pulitzer Awards for Journalism, for most all of its 20 members are journalists, columnists, and newspaper editors: perfect people for making judgments in the 14 Prizes for Journalism and Nonfiction. But there is no head of any English Department and only one novelist among them (Junot Diaz). Is this a group that can be trusted to make a serious assessment of a prize-winning novel? I would think not.

An outsider might also reasonably assume that none of these titles might have been worthy picks. Or that the Board was equally divided on what was best, with nobody commanding 10 votes. As one of the jurors, Maureen Corrigan said, “We’ll never know why the Pulitzer board declined to award the prize this year, because, as is the board members’ right, they’ve drawn their Wizard of Oz curtain closed tight. I’d like to think that The Pale King, Train Dreams and Swamplandia! each garnered such fierce partisans on the board that no compromise could be reached. Right. Whenever I succumb to that fantasy, the words written by the winner of the 1953 Pulitzer Prize in fiction ring in my head: ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’ ”

Corrigan used the Wizard of Oz comparison, referring to the secrecy of the Board to discuss their reasons for no award this year (confirmed by Gissler in his email to me: “I am not at liberty to discuss the reasons beyond saying that multiple factors and perspectives were involved and, in the end, none of the nominated finalists mustered the mandatory majority vote.”). As far as I’m concerned there is another apt comparison to the overestimated “Wizard” in the film, having to do with his being an ordinary man—Frank Morgan—who manipulated and enhanced his importance by using smoke and mirrors to make something much bigger of himself than was warranted.

Before this fiasco, I assumed that Pulitzer selections were made by other fiction writers—as is the case with the National Book Awards, where judges for fiction are also novelists, and non-fiction is judged by writers of non-fiction. Just as the Edgar Awards are judged by mystery writers, and the $10,000 Chautauqua Award for Best First Fiction is judged by the oldest reading group in America. This failure to let novelists determine the best novel diminishes greatly the gravitas of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, though it remains the leading “Brand Name” in the Awards world. Still, this 2012 failure to pick a winner exposes the fact that The Emperor wears no clothes. Can they choose good fiction; surely. Great fiction occasionally, yes. But the odds seemed stacked against this because of their skewed and tortured selection process (never mind that the President of Columbia failed to give the Fiction Prize to Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1941—though his jurors re commended it—because the President was a fascist sympathizer).

I reminded Gissler that earlier this year he decried the fact that too many novels were submitted for the Fiction award and that the large number of submissions made it hard to handle them. That’s surely apparent now, for under their current procedures how can three jurors possibly read two novels every day without doing a hell of a lot of skimming?

I also suggested—as did each of the justifiably frustrated and angry jurists—that there had to be a better way to structure the Fiction prize, one being that there might be at least five or six jurors who might divvy up their overburdened reading, with each suggesting three (or four, or five) novels they enjoyed the most, passing these on to the other jurors, and then collectively voting for the top novel without allowing a self-perpetuating board of journalists to make that final decision. Five or six finalists are the way it works for the National Book Awards, for Chautauqua, and for the Edgars. Expecting each Pulitzer juror to read 341 titles is absurd. Equally ridiculous is having an overseer board of newspaper editors and journalists make the final determination of a prize for fiction if you are truly looking for the best novel.

I asked Gissler for a refund of our entrance fees—as other publishers should as well—if the prize they applied for is not given…not that I expected him to say “Sure, fine,” which he did not, replying instead that “the $50 handling fee is non-refundable, as stated on the entry form.” So let me take that back and propose two other possibilities: double your award to $20,000 next year for the $10,000 you saved this year, or, even better, divide that money up amongst the three jurors for their wasted time and effort on a project they took seriously, even if they didn’t have the time to carefully consider so many submissions.

Failing that, here’s another suggestion: Lock up all Board members in a conference room at the School of Journalism, sleeping bags and cots on the side, provide food from the cafeteria or McDonalds, and adopt the procedures of the Catholic Church when electing a new Pope: only allow them out when a puff of smoke announces a winner.

Over the past few decades several of our authors have done quite well in award situations where judgments are made by peers. This year, one of our five submissions for the Pulitzer, Leonard Rosen's All Cry Chaos, was chosen as one of six fiction finalists for the Chautauqua Book Award and as one of five finalists for an Edgar Award. Over the past seven years we've had three winners of the PEN New England/Winship Awards (Edward Delany’s Warp & Weft, Kermit Moyers’ The Chester Chronicles, and K.C. Fredericks’ Inland ), had a finalist for the National Book Awards (Sandra Scofield’s Beyond Deserving), and a Nobel Prize nomination for Berry Fleming.

Of course there were no journalists making the final decision in these cases.

I welcome your comments and hope you will go to the revised Permanent Press website, for both the Newsletter and other breaking news updates. You might also consider contacting Sig Gissler by email (sg138@columbia.edu) and share your thoughts about their Fiction Prize.


Marty

Thursday, April 5, 2012

EIGHT WISHES

It’s been three months since my last “monthly” blog posting. So much to do and so little time to do it all. The time has been spent, instead, keeping up with our largest yearly list ever (16 titles for 2012, half of them mysteries), and trying to spread-the-word about the extraordinary critical receptions our recently published (and soon to be released) fiction has been gathering.

All this has made me aware of my own “Wish List.” No matter how much recognition our authors receive, there is a measure of Divine Discontent I feel when there is not even more of it. At the same time it seems important not to let wishes become expectations which can lead to hectoring others for frustrating my desire to have more attention paid. Without further apologies, here are my satisfactions and frustrations and as yet unrealized wishes.

I WISH our web site revisions, started a few months ago, will completed shortly. When one clicks on The Permanent Press website the only catalog one can download is that for 2011. Until that happens, here is a link to the 2012 catalog.

I WISH that Chris Knopf, with his tenth mystery, Dead Anyway, coming out in September, gains tens of thousands more readers. In my opinion, there is no better mystery writer alive, judging by the consistency of his work over the past seven years. Critics likened his five Sam Acquillo mystery series to Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and Robert Parker’s Spenser, and repeatedly compared Knopf to Elmore Leonard and both John D. MacDonald and Ross MacDonald. Translation rights were sold in seven different countries, and Chris gained several literary awards for these books. So, why not have 50,000 in domestic sales instead of 5,000? And while I have this Chris wish list, I’ll gladly give an autographed collection of all his Sam Acquillo mysteries to anyone who can come up with a sub-title for this forthcoming thriller series. With the Sam books it was easy to add, under each title, “A Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mystery.” But Dead Anyway poses a problem since the narrator/protagonist has to continually change identities in order to stay alive. Page 13 of the 2012 catalog may give you food for thought in coming up with a winning concept.

I WISH Leonard Rosen’s All Cry Chaos, published last September and now a finalist as Best First Novel for both the Edgar Award and the $10,000 Chautauqua Prize (as well as being a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year Award) is announced the winner of one or more of these prizes—all to be announced within the next few weeks.

I WISH that David Schmahmann’s The Double Life of Alfred Buber finds some break-out room, having been listed in Doug Childers' column in The Richmond Times-Dispatch as one of his “Ten Favorite Books of 2011.” It was one of my favorites, too, and dismaying that so few reviewers took note of it.

I WISH that our string of great pre-pub reviews continues. Each and every title for the past year has had fine advance reviews, and lately, a spate of starred reviews for the 2012 titles. Ivan Goldman’s Isaac had a starred review in Booklist; Two mysteries—Connie Dial’s Fallen Angels and David Freed’s Flat Spin had starred reviews in Library Journal.

I WISH that Nancy Pearl, a respected and important NPR reviewer (and writer whose columns and blogs appear in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal) would one day be impressed enough by one of our writers to cover one of their novels.

January 30, 1980, saw the one and only full review of one of our titles (Richard Lortz’s The Valdepe┼łas) in the daily editions of The New York Times. Having failed to provide any of our subsequent novelists major review coverage for the next 32 years, I WISH this drought might some day end.

My final WISH, of course, is that I find the time to come up with something else to say without waiting so long between postings.

I invite your comments, hope you will check out the current Newsletter on The Permanent Press website, and sign up as a "follower" of this blog in order to be alerted when future postings occur.

Marty

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR

One of the great pleasures in publishing is discovering terrific writers. One of the frustrations is not being able to find an audience that would do justice to the novels they write. There is a system in publishing that mirrors what the Occupy Wall Street movement has focused on: Multinational Corporations RULE. Small independent presses are the 99%, and the 1% are the Big Six Multinationals—whose home offices are largely to be found in Germany (Hotzbrink owns Macmillan and Bertelsmann owns Random House), France (Hachette), and England (The Penguin Group)—with the last two majors being Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, incorporated in Australia until 2004, when they reincorporated in the USA, but with tentacles still stretching to Australia and England. The only remaining colossus clearly American owned is Simon and Schuster, owned by CBS. By virtue of the advertising budgets, radio and television stations, major magazine and newspaper ownership, book clubs, expense accounts, and other media outlets, their releases dominate the print reviews, interviews, articles and are able to create “stars.” I love Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but has anyone ever seen them interview a guest whose book comes from a small independent press? The same applied to Oprah at her height. The Big Six, with over 100 imprints, manage to turn writers into celebrities.

I’ve reported how this system works in past blogs over the last couple of years, and have no need to flog a dead horse (or a living Tyrannosaurus Rex) again, but you can always read these past postings. Instead, I’m happy to report that, despite the odds, 2011 was a very satisfying year for us, with seven of our authors gaining artistic recognition.

Kermit Moyer’s The Chester Chronicles won the 2011 PEN/Winship Award for Fiction (the third time in the last seven years one of our novelists won this New England Prize—previous winners being Edward Delaney’s Warp & Weft, and K.C. Frederick’s Inland.

ForeWord Magazine included Charles Davis’ Standing at the Crossroads as one of their Top 10 Books for 2011. Only one other novel made that list.

Georgeann Packard’s Fall Asleep Forgetting was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards for both the Bisexual Fiction and Lesbian Debut Fiction Awards.

The New Mexico Book Award for First Fiction went to Liza Campbell for The Dissemblers.

Jenny Shank’s The Ringer was a finalist for both the Denver Book of the Year Award and the Independent Booksellers Reading the West Book Awards. It was also a Tattered Cover Summer Reading 2011 selection, and sat atop the Best-Seller lists in Denver and Boulder for several weeks.

Luxury Reading.com listed Louise Young’s Seducing the Spirits as one of their top 10 books for 2011.

Maud Adjarian, doing a round-up of memorable mysteries in Library Journal, listed Leonard Rosen’s All Cry Chaos as one that “had all the elements of great crime fiction: unforgettable characters, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and page-turning plots.” And she backed it up with an interview with Len in the same article—the only writer interviewed. Now in its second printing, Chaos also had four foreign translations—with sales made in The Netherlands, Turkey, France, and Spain Additionally a film option was signed with Captivate Entertainment (whose principals produced the “Bourne” film series), and audiorights were sold to Blackstone Audiobooks.

On a strictly commercial level, four additional film options were renewed last year by our extraordinary film agent, Jeff Aghassi, who has represented us for over 15 years. (How extraordinary is he? Does anyone know a television and film agent who reads everything he pitches and who you can talk to the same day you call?): And here are the books in play: Rob Levandoski’s Serendipity Green by Right Angle Pictures: Harriet Chessman’s Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Upper Gate Entertainment; Paul McComas' Planet of the Dates by Eye in the Sky Entertainment; and William Browning Spencer's A Child's Christmas (one of the tales in his The Return of Count Electric & Other Stories) by Upstart Entertainment.

With 17 subrights sales overall in 2011, three standouts were the sale of Sherril Jaffe’s Expiration Date to Beijing Mediatime Books in China and Jaden Terrell’s two forthcoming “Jared McKean” mysteries, Racing the Devil and A Cup Full of Midnight to Rowohlt in Germany.

For those who prefer to listen to books rather than read them, we are blessed to have Haila Williams, Blackstone Audiobooks acquiring editor on the same page as us when it comes to appreciating quality fiction. In 2011 (in addition to All Cry Chaos) they also produced Chris Knopf’s Black Swan—his fifth Sam Acquillo mystery—and have proved to be great publishing partners (Chris unquestionably being one of America’s most masterful writers in this genre), and have already signed up his tenth thriller, Dead Anyway for 2012. Haila also signed up three 2012 mystery: the aforementioned “Jared McKean mysteries written by Jaden Terrell and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Freed’s Flat Spin.

The other great pleasures of 2012 were working with some truly fabulous, creative, intelligent and kind people—from the people who turn manuscripts into well-designed and beautiful books: our cover artist Lon Kirschner, our copyeditor Joslyn Pine, and Susan Ahlquist, our typesetter. To Felix Gonzalez, our always sunny guy in charge of shipping and receiving who works tirelessly in getting these books out. To Rania Haditirto, our former managing editor (who can still pitch in from home), who gave birth last fall to a beautiful baby boy and who chose and tutored her successor, Cathy Suter. Cathy has proved to be a gift from the Gods, with so many skills (an artist with a background in publishing, computer literate, and a joy to spend time with five days a week, and here for the long run (not likely to have a baby with four daughters, three of them in their 20’s and a just turned 13 years old). Jenny Hartig, ex-actress and current Bridgehampton librarian who sends out rejection letters once a week. Caleb Kercheval, our webmaster and designer. And I must include two wonderful interns: Sarah Flood and Christie Sheehan. Sarah will stay on as a salaried jack-of-all trades and Christie, who goes back to school, has done some excellent interviews.

I close out this blog with Christie’s interview with Michael Adelberg’s, whose widely praised A Thinking Man’s Bully was one of our last novels published in 2011 (In our interview on our January Newsletter on The Permanent Press website you can read her interview with Julie Mars, one of our first authors for 2012, whose novel Rust drew pre-publication raves).

Q: What made you decide to write about bullying from a parent’s perspective? Did you have a particular goal in mind in doing this?
A: I was inspired to write Bully after I had a conversation with the parent of a bully about his son’s conduct. The man said the right things, but I knew he wasn’t going to do a darn thing to curb his son. The father’s not really a bad guy, and he’s not all that different from me. He’s just stuck in the post-macho male conundrum: half-proud of his son’s badass streak and other Neanderthal behaviors, but he can’t admit to it. I always wanted to write a novel and thought ‘Oh gosh, no one talks about this.’ I wanted to talk about it.

Q: In the book, the main character has reservations about publishing his memoir, which discusses the death of his best friend. Did you face similar hesitations in having your own book published?
A: My novel is not autobiographical, but the book has many autobiographical elements in its setup and setting. After the drafting of the book was nearly complete, my nephew­­, a young man­­ whose slacker wit infuses the teen characters in the book, took his life. It was so terrible on so many levels. It made finishing Bully very emotional and difficult. But it also gave me fresh insights into much of the book’s content. While I’d do anything to reverse the loss, the final version of Bully is better because it is informed by tragedy.

Q: In another interview, you said that bullying has always been a problem and is inherent in human nature. Why do you think it has recently received more attention?
A: Bullying has received increasing attention because we have, as a society, lessened our tolerance of it—just like child abuse or a variety of other social pathologies that used to be tolerated. Our tolerance is lower and our ability to detect it is better. Bullying doesn’t just get pushed under the rug or dismissed with “boys will be boys” bromides anymore.

Q: From your perspective, do you have any suggestions of ways for our society and schools in particular to address the bullying situations both in and outside of the classrooms?
A: That’s an excellent question, but probably one that should be addressed to someone who’s a real expert on the topic. While I’ve been both the hammer and the nail at different parts of my life, I don’t know if I’m the best person to answer this question. What I do think is that parents often pass bullying down to the next generation. It’s a learned behavior. Maybe we can take some solace in knowing that we choose the behaviors we model for our kids and perhaps can modify our behaviors. I’m pessimistic about the impact of simplistic slogan-driven campaigns. But just as we’ve made gradual progress as a society in so many ways, from lessening racism to wearing seatbelts, we can make gradual progress in fighting bullying. Gradual is the key word.

Q: Were there any real-life influences for the therapist, Lisa Moscovitz?
A: None of the characters in A Thinking Man’s Bully are based on a specific individual, but little pieces of real people are in these characters. With Lisa, I borrowed a college professor of mine. She was extremely subtle in guiding me when I made strong or ill-considered statements. Only after we’d finish our conversation would I realize that she had me in revisit a topic and speak more thoughtfully. She showed great restraint, which is a greatly undervalued virtue. In my book, Lisa was repeatedly tested by the narrator, Matt Duffy. He tried to irritate her, conceal difficult truths, and throw her off in numerous ways. But she stayed focused and patient, and let him learn at his own pace.
Q: Who are your literary influences? Any favorite authors?

A: I don’t really have favorite authors, but I do have favorite books—a lot of them. I can’t do justice to them all. Some favorites are Travesty by John Hawkes, Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee, The Inheritors by William Golding, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. Among newer books, I‘m a huge fan of Marc Schuster’s The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl (published by the Permanent Press), Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer, and Tristan Egolf’s Lord of the Barnyard. Egolf’s novel, like mine, deals with hardscrabble males rubbing up against societal rules they don’t fully understand. I was influenced by Thomas Rayfiel’s Time Among the Dead (also published by the Permanent Press) and Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelley Gang. These books showed me how much fun it is to deal with flawed narrators who carefully select which facts to offer the reader in the interest of trying to redeem themselves. I love the concept of selective, manipulated narration. This challenges the reader to infer what the narrator refuses to reveal. Another book that influenced me was I Am the Cheese, a very sophisticated young adult book by Robert Cormier that I read in 8th grade. I Am the Cheese is about a young man a on a trip to place that is unknown to him. Chapters are built around parts of his trip, and after each episode he discusses that part of his trip with an unnamed interviewer. You don’t find out until the end that the narrator is in a psychiatric hospital. The analysis from the interviews and the dual plots—one around the narrator’s trip, and one around the narrator’s attempt to understand where he is now—impressed me so much. I wanted to try something similar.

Q: Do you have any particular routine or schedule that you try to follow when writing?
A: I’m a lunatic and do not recommend my schedule to anyone. I’m a workaholic, and I cram in too many things. I work my real job as a health policy wonk in the day, try to be a good dad in the evening, and then perform research as a historian after the kid’s go to bed. After that, I write fiction. I write maybe twice a week; I’ll just wake up at two in the morning with an idea and then write until I go to work. I write in the middle of the night because that’s when I have time to do it—not because I think there is something serene or magical about those hours. I proofread my work on weekends, but I my serious drafting happens in the middle of the night.

Q: What advice would you give to budding authors?
A: The single thing you have to do is proofread again and again and again. Maybe there are a handful of truly brilliant writers who can get it right on the first draft. But I imagine that most budding authors are like me. We need a dozen drafts to truly do things justice. With Bully, I made major revisions and removed enormous pieces of text because they weren’t totally right. I am lucky that I’ve had great peer reviewers. I tend to do what they suggest in the belief that even if I don’t like the recommended change, they read my work with less bias than I can. Maybe I’ve been blessed in that I seem to be less emotionally attached to my writing than many authors. If someone tells me something stinks I take their word for it and try again. There are four chapters that aren’t in the final version because

Q: As a footnote, what gave you the idea to add footnotes to the book?
A: This is a delightful topic. When Bully was at its biggest, 270 pages long (now 190), it included 150 footnotes. Many were the type of notes that might be written for an academic journal. I just love the pomposity of the academic footnote and included long footnotes on the pop and high culture topics that fill my book, everything from Rock em’ Sock em’ Robots and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Matt Duffy, the fictional memoirist, wants people to know he’s smart, so his memoir would be inclined go overboard on tangential information. But the footnotes also had Matt’s mean sense of humor and reflected his need to make a point about everything. Peer reviewers split over the footnotes, but many worried that they were just too much of a distraction and too out-of-sync with fiction norms. On the final advice of Marty and Judy Shepard, who have been publishing wonderful fiction for a long time, most of the notes were shortened or removed entirely. What you see now in the footnotes is greatly scaled back. But I was still able to maintain a little of Matt’s attitude in the notes that remain, and people seem to like the notes in this abbreviated incarnation.

A always, I welcome your comments.

Marty