How did you write that, Kevin Birmingham?

birmingham-e1426597952473What better subject for St. Patrick’s Day than that glorious work of Irish literature, Ulysses? Kevin Birmingham‘s new book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for Jame Joyce’s Ulysses, tells the fascinating story of the censorship battles that raged on both sides of the Atlantic over Joyce’s masterwork. Along the way, he fills the reader in on the origins of modernism, the women’s movement, Joyce’s passion and profligacy, and the cultural fallout from World War I.

Kevin agreed to answer a few questions about his writing process for How Did You Write That

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for The Most Dangerous Book?

battleKevin: When I was in grad school, my first dissertation idea (there were many) involved the history of literary obscenity and censorship in the United States. I stepped aside from that project and, years later (while in the final throes of my actual dissertation) I returned to the topic and realized that no one had written the full story surrounding Ulysses, and it was so fascinating. There’s quite a lot of archival material about the case itself and the people surrounding it, so I knew it could be a book. It may have taken that years-long break for me to see the subject in a new light.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Kevin: I sifted through the published material, put together a basic outline of events and started writing them out as vignettes. It got more complicated as time went on, but I wanted to start telling the story to help get the feel of it.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Kevin: I organized it mostly around people. I had big folders for “Sylvia Beach” and “John Quinn,” and I eventually turned them into notes compiled in various Word documents. I had well over a thousand single-spaced pages of condensed notes, and that was the raw material for the book.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Kevin: I’m best with a routine and no internet access. So I head to a cafe where I’d have to pay an absurd amount to get online. I sit in the same seat, order the same breakfast and start revising the last few paragraphs I wrote before plunging ahead. I listen to music without lyrics or in a language I don’t understand. After three or four hours, I have lunch. Then I press ahead for another couple of hours. If it’s a busy day I’ll put in three more hours at another cafe. It sounds tedious even to write about the routine, but it works for me.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Kevin: I’ve recently started using OCR software called Abbyy Finereader Pro. I scan books, and the software will turn it into a searchable pdf or a Word document far more accurately than other programs I’ve seen. So I now have a fully searchable copy of, say, the complete letters of a certain author, and instead of transcribing them into a Word document, I can simply cut and paste the information I need.

Bonus question: The voice of The Most Dangerous Book is lively and literary. What is your advice for avoiding a dry, academic voice when writing scholarly nonfiction?

Kevin: Imagine your audience—and not in some vague, idealized way. Imagine particular people, people who are intelligent and curious but who don’t know much about your subject. Then imagine that you’re telling them everything you’re writing. Do you have their interest or not? Are they bored or confused or anxious? Are they inspired? Do they want to hear more? The paradox of writing is that it’s a solitary task with a deeply communal purpose. You’re by yourself when you’re writing, but you should never feel alone.

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How did you write that, Amy Fusselman?

credit.kevin_.hart_-200x300In recent weeks I’ve been transfixed by news of the measles outbreak that started at The Happiest Place on Earth — Disneyland. In particular, I’m fascinated by the rhetoric that accompanies vaccine rejection. How did a medical intervention that was once considered a common-sense precaution become so controversial?

One of the arguments I’ve seen in favor of foregoing immunization is that our (Western, affluent) society is far too protective of children. Parents are ridiculed, castigated, sometimes arrested for doing things that were commonplace when I was a child, like leaving their kid in the car for five minutes while they run into the store, or letting their child play at a neighborhood park alone. Vaccinating a baby against once-common diseases like measles or chicken pox is, the vaccine opponents say, another way in which we’re overprotective. On the other hand, they argue, vaccines themselves are risky, and what parent wouldn’t want to shield their child against a bad reaction or lifetime health consequences? Either way, the conversation seems to perpetually circle around perceptions of risk and which ones we should be protecting our children from.

savage.park_Amy Fusselman has thought a lot about why we’ve become so risk-averse. Her latest book, Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die, examines the existential angst that lies behind modern parenting — modern life, really — and does it with style.

The book centers around a Japanese recreation area called Hanegi Park, from which it spirals in and out masterfully, from the examination of tiny details to the contemplation of our deepest human needs. Here are some questions I asked Amy about Savage Park, and her answers.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Savage Park?

Amy: I was inspired to write the book after visiting Hanegi Playpark in Tokyo, affectionately dubbed “Savage Park” by the child of the friend who took my family there. Hanegi Playwark is an adventure playground, which is a type of playground first developed by landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorenson in Copenhagen in 1943 when that town was under German occupation. Adventure playgrounds are composed of essentially three elements: a vacant lot, donated materials or tools, and a playworker who is there to facilitate children’s play but not to direct it.

Given the play environments I was accustomed to in my hometown of New York City, this landscape was inspiring to me, and I wanted to explore it.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Amy: I began taking notes and took notes for a long period. This book had many changes before I decided on the structure. 

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Amy: I read and mark up what I read, and I take notes. I tolerate a lot of mess on the way to making a shape. 

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Amy: Writing is a very different activity from promotion, but in any case, none of it happens unless my three kids are in school. So far, I can’t work very well when my kids are at home. Maybe in a few more years.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Amy: Probably the thing I value most is just reading a piece of writing or even seeing a piece of art or dance or theater that inspires me. Just seeing that someone is making thrilling or interesting or provocative work is important to me; it encourages me to keep going.  This is especially true if the artist is a woman.  It’s critical for me to see women artists working. 

Bonus question: You have a powerful way of taking a small interaction and cracking it open so that it reveals surprising possibilities for new ways of thinking. Is there something about your writing process that allows you access these insights? What advice would you give a fellow writer who wants to develop a talent for close observation?

Amy: Thank you for that compliment. I do think close observation is important but I also think it’s important to allow myself to pull apart what I observe. I never want to be afraid to ask “Why?” “Why?” is a really important question. 

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How did you write that, Ethan Gilsdorf?

EthanGilsdorf_DD_stufff_Mags_LR-e1422901846523Looking over Ethan Gilsdorf‘s list of credits, it’s clear the man has never met a genre of nonfiction he could not master. He’s a frequent instructor at Boston’s GrubStreet and has published hundreds of articles, but today he’ll be answering a few questions about his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • How newspaper and magazine articles can launch a book.
  • The value of first-hand reporting.
  • Tips for promoting your work.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks?

fantasy-199x300Ethan: My original idea was to write a memoir about my relationship with my mother, and her life. She had succumbed to a debilitating brain injury when I was 12 and she was 38—the same year I began to play Dungeons & Dragons and get sucked into fantasy worlds. That book never happened, but I began to see way I could explore my fascination with fantasy and gaming through the lens of my own life, as well as the cultural changes that had occurred since I was a nerd back in the 1970s and 1980s. My agent helped me shape the idea as a hybrid memoir, stunt journalism narrative, and pop cultural investigation into various subcultures, such as D&D players, Larpers and video gamers, to Harry Potter, cosplay and Lord of the Rings fan communities. How and why had fantasy and gaming gone so mainstream? What did it all mean? Those were my guiding ideas as I delved into researching and writing Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. In the end, I was able to save one of the chapters from my “mom memoir” project which, seriously revised, became the prologue to FF&GG.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Ethan: In a panic. Seriously, I wish I’d had more of a method to my madness. But here is what happened. To write FF&GGI first began getting assignments from magazines and newspapers for stand-alone articles; a few of these later became chapters in the book. Once I had a book contract in hand and a small advance, I spent a year doing (simultaneously!) book/internet research, field work/interviews, and immersion journalism projects, as well as investigating my own past, which involved talking to family/old friends and analyzing my own personal archives of high school papers, photos, and old D&D paraphernalia.

I wanted each chapter to focus on a different subculture, so I picked a couple dozen ideas: exemplary events to attend, people to shadow and interview, and activities I could participate in — like dressing up in costume and camping with 12,000 medieval reenactors, for example; or spending a few weeks playing the video game World of Warcraft; or hanging out with Tolkien nerds at a convention in the UK for a weekend.

That said, I tried to — and for space reasons, had to — narrow the focus of my investigation to fantasy and gaming only. That meant skipping things like science fiction (my beloved Star Wars!), or superhero comics, and other nerd cultures. I was also limited by budget, which impacted where I could travel. I went on several trips across the nation, one to the UK and to France. I also decide to splurge on a trip to New Zealand to make a pilgrimage to the Lord of the Rings filming locations and Peter Jackson’s movie production facilities. Sadly, I had to ignore a LOT of ideas and leads, and even after my trips and experiences, and hundreds of pages of notes, much great material ended up on cutting room floor.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Ethan: Badly! I am terribly disorganized. I make lists, and jot down notes, and keep many Word docs laden with ideas, links, other stories. I buy books, I go to the library, and I look on Google a lot. I have lots of things scribbled on post-it notes. At times, it can all feel pretty overwhelming. And I definitely think you can research too much. It can get in the way of your own thinking and your own ideas.

I think I do my best research first-hand, with notebook in hand, and camera around my neck (or in my pocket), in the field, taking notes as I’m talking to people, and recording my observation and ideas. I do this while I’m engaged in some experience, such as mountain biking, or trying to sword fight, or wandering around talking to people at a convention. I learned this skill as a travel writer based in Paris for five years. There is no substitute for first-hand reportage.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Ethan: A research day is different from a writing day is different from book promotion day.

A research day usually has me out in the field somewhere, interviewing someone in person (where possible) or talking to them on the phone, or doing some archival work or Googling around the internet. This is a fun process as I get sucked down multiple rabbit holes.

A writing day, especially when I’m on deadline, is more fraught with stress. As a freelance journalist, usually I am trying to knock out some story or column (or at least the first draft of it) in a good solid 4 to 6 hour stretch (in between being seduced by social media). When I wrote Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, I was able to scale back my freelance work and focus more on my book writing. But I had less than a year from signing the contract to my deadline to do all my research and writing, so I had to become more disciplined than I’d ever been as a writer. I thumb-tacked a calendar to the wall in my office, made firm dates for the trips and travel that was needed for about 9 months of researching. I had to crank out 1 to 2 chapter a month, in and around all the travel. I gave myself deadlines, and tried to stick with my plan. And I did, more or less.

Book promotion is a different muscle. I slip into self-promotion mode. Back when Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks was a new book, a book promotion day might have involved contacting organizers of reading series, college professors, bookstores, potential reviewers, groups that might co-sponsor some promotion or event, or trying to write an op-ed and place it with a media outlet. Or I might have been giving a talk at a college or book fair, doing a radio show, or attending a convention and handing out postcards. I tried all kinds of things. I was a tireless self-promoter! Some of my tips can be found in a chapter I contributed to Chuck Sambuchino’s excellent book Create Your Writer Platform: The Key to Building an Audience, Selling More Books, and Finding Success as an Author.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Ethan: I’m a fan of several books, including Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, a terrific book for those looking for big-picture and micro-level writing issues, and for memoir writers, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler, and The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts which are both great help for those thinking about writing short or long-length memoir.

On a more practical level, if you’re easily distracted by the internet, I recommend installing these apps on your computer: Freedom and Antisocial are software to block access to the internet or social media only for discreet periods time, so you can increase your own productivity.

Bonus question: Dungeons & Dragons recently turned 40 (How is that possible?). Were you able to use that occasion to generate new publicity for your book?

Ethan: Short answer: yes! Anniversaries are great ways to make your expertise or niche area instantly timely and newsworthy. I wrote probably 10 different stories, op-eds, commentaries, posts and personal essays in 2014 that tied into the 40th anniversary of D&D. Each of these ended with my bio: “Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Boston GlobeBoston Globe MagazineBoston Magazine, Salon, BoingBoing, … etc. You can read more about Ethan at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.” Get your book title and your website and Twitter handle into your boilerplate bio. Which is  what I am doing here. Mwwhahahha!

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How did you write that, Chip Bishop?

COB-Crop-050414-203x300America’s appetite for the Roosevelts is seemingly insatiable. For instance, over 30 million people* watched “The Roosevelts” this fall on PBS, making it Ken Burns’ third most popular series to date. If you’ve caught the Roosevelt craving, then Chip Bishop‘s newest book, Quentin & Flora: A Roosevelt and a Vanderbilt in Love during the Great War, is for you. It’s the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, his secret romance with a member of the Vanderbilt family, and his heroic service in World War I.

A note about the author — who sounds as though he’d be a great subject for a biography, too:

Chip grew up in Woonsocket, R.I. and was graduated from Boston University. His lifetime of achievements includes time as a campaign and administration aide to President Jimmy Carter, Capitol Hill lobbyist, business entrepreneur, local elected official, and disc-jockey during the fabled 1960s British Invasion.

Chip is a member of the board of directors of the Biographers International Organization, a member of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and the executive committee of its New England chapter.

He serves his community as vice chair of the board of trustees of the Mashpee Massachusetts Public Library. He loves doo-wop music, old German stamps and the Red Sox when they were champions.

Chip lives in Mashpee on Cape Cod with his wife and business partner, Jane Nichols Bishop, and Benjamin and Sabrina, their two black, rescue cats.

He is the great-grandnephew of Joseph Bucklin Bishop, Theodore Roosevelt’s authorized biographer, who was profiled in his first book.

quentinI asked Chip how his latest book came to be. Here are his answers:

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Quentin & Flora?

Chip: While I was researching my first book, The Lion and the Journalist, I was struck by the deep heartache that Theodore Roosevelt felt at the wartime death of his youngest son, Quentin. Theodore exalted war but he never expected it to take away his favorite child. When it did, he was overwhelmed not only by grief but guilt. He had sent his four sons into battle after he, himself, was denied the opportunity to go to Europe and fight the oppressors. These events motivated me to dig deeper into the Quentin story. And, at the suggestion of my then-literary agent, I added the “love interest” story of his relationship and secret engagement to Flora Payne Whitney, a Vanderbilt descendant.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Chip: Of course, I researched secondary sources among the many Theodore Roosevelt books and several others written about Flora’s family. Then I discovered that the T.R. Collection at Harvard University held about 125 letters that Quentin and Flora had exchanged during their courtship. The letters opened up the intimate world of Quentin and Flora and gave me the rich texture of their brief time together. Interviews were virtually impossible since all of the principal characters of the era had died. But I was fortunate to obtain the support of Flora’s daughter who offered great insight, photos and previously unseen documents.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Chip: The floor of my study was littered with three-ring binders and spiral notebooks where I keep excerpts of the letters and many hand-written notes, organized by subject and potential chapters. I code my resources in a way that I can pull together every bit of information by topic when it is time to draft the manuscript on my laptop. It works very well for me, despite the mess.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Chip: I’m a morning person, so you are likely to find me at my desk as early as 4:30 or 5 a.m. when the house is quiet and everyone else (including two black rescue cats) is asleep. I find that my mind is fresh after a good night’s sleep and, if I’m lucky, the words will flow from my fingers. I read the first draft of a chapter (the worst draft, I call it) to my wife, Jane, over breakfast. She is my best critic, and I usually accept her suggestions. Later in the day, I return to the keyboard and update the text with a fresh perspective. My final manuscripts are the result of heavy editing, four or five times over.

I am a marketer by profession, so I am on the road locally every week, reading from Quentin and Flora to audiences that will have me.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Chip: Theodore Roosevelt and his family do not lack for informational resources. The finest, by far, are the Theodore Roosevelt Collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library and the online files of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. I have spent hours at Harvard reviewing original manuscripts and letters, and an equal amount of time online with the Center’s collection. I admit that I would be at a loss without Dictionary.com and my online thesaurus.

Bonus question: Quentin & Flora is painted with a rainbow of feelings — joy, sorrow, love, fear, warmth, and humor. How did you go about creating an emotional portrait of your subjects?

Chip: I admit to getting too close to my subjects as I wrote. At times, I got choked up while reading the manuscript out loud to Jane. I righted myself during the final editing, worked hard to restore perspective, and delivered to my readers what I felt was a fervent but impartial narrative. It is Quentin and Flora’s tale, of course, but fortunately for all, Theodore Roosevelt shines like the sun in the backstory.

 

*Just to put that in perspective, 2014’s most popular show, Big Bang Theory, draws about 23 million viewers per episode.

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How did you write that, Adam Parfrey?

As soon as I heard about Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes, I knew I had to get my hands on this book. Big-eye portraits were everywhere when I was a kid — hanging in friends’ homes, advertised in magazines, and peering down from the walls of doctor’s offices, giving them a “sick children welcome here” vibe.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s an example:MargaretKeane-225x300

(Even the kitten has big eyes!)

Citizen Keane is a great read for art historians, mid-century nostalgia buffs, and fans of the Big Con. This book blows the whole big-eye phenomenon sky-high. I reached out to Citizen Keane’s publisher and co-author, Adam Parfrey, for the backstory on how this book came to be. Here’s his reply:

Adam: Citizen Keane was originally published as a cover story I wrote for The San Diego Reader in 1991.

How I got involved with that weekly paper is a story in itself. A couple staffers — one a short Jewish guy, and the other a tall blonde girl — came up from San Diego to visit me one afternoon. I had never met them before, but apparently they enjoyed books I had published through Feral House. We spoke throughout the evening but they were apparently too drunk to drive home, so I invited them to crash at my rented East Hollywood bungalow that I was in the middle of cleaning up and varnishing years-old layers of cat piss. I woke the next morning with the blonde in my bed, which confused me as I assumed she was the short guy’s girlfriend. In any case, they recommended me to publisher Jim Holman.

citizen.keane_I wasn’t aware that Holman was a high-level Catholic who often visited the Vatican and contributed to anti-gay and anti-abortion movements in California. He nevertheless hired me to write features and a column for the paper called “HelL.A.,” my weekly disquisition on weird L.A. individuals and institutions.

When I was underway writing a feature about a strange cult, I ran into notices on telephone poles about a self-published paperback by Walter Keane called “The World of Keane.” I phoned the number on the poster and reached Keane directly, and made plans to interview him for an article. I knew of the man and his supposed art, and owned a two volume hardcover set. One of Walter Keane’s work, of the big eye kids, and the other was about Margaret’s work, mostly of Modigliani-style young women. Walter has a strange way about him, asking me intimate questions about my life and my sexual preferences. I started to wonder what made San Diegans so damn strange.

The more I researched the Keane article, obtaining transcripts of his legal troubles, the story became odd as hell, truly a great potential article. Both Walter and Margaret had been launching lawsuits for over a decade regarding the true painter of the big eye kids. The final lawsuit had just finished in Margaret’s favor by the time I interviewed them. Walter was bitter about the whole thing, and made sure to tell me creepy sex-oriented accusations about Margaret that were no doubt total lies. Margaret was a lovely and agreeable woman who devoted her life to the Jehovah’s Witness faith. By mail she sent me a few signed JW books, and its art seemed Keane-like to me, although she had nothing to do with them. After the nine or ten thousand word Reader article was published, Walter Keane wrote a letter to the editor accusing me of being paid off a million dollars by the Witnesses.

The article got quite a reaction at the time. Hip coffee shops and nightclubs started to put up Keane paintings, and a new lowbrow art magazine, Juxtapoz, reprinted it, and it later appeared in my 1994 book collection called Cult Rapture.  Margaret got an exhibition at an art museum in Laguna Beach. A couple years ago I heard that the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the ones behind the Ed Wood movie that properly paid credit to the Feral House book, were doing a new film with Tim Burton again, this time about the Keanes.  What do I think of this? I won’t reveal this in print, but at least I could publish a revised, enlarged and illustrated version prior to the film’s release. So happened the book Citizen Keane: The Big Lies Behind the Big Eyes. Author Cletus Nelson assisted me with its research.

I’ve got a busy schedule acquiring, editing and publishing a number of books through the Feral House and Process Media imprints. It’s really a full-time occupation.  The Keane story and other articles or books I’ve written take quite a bit of focus and time…

A big discovery about writing stories is that one should try and call people you’re interested in reporting about. You might get a lot. For example, I found in the phone book a listing for former Los Angeles mayor Sam Yorty. A visit to his house yielded three great columns.

How did you write that, Caitlin Doughty?

caitlin.doughty-300x199This was the summer of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. Everywhere I went, people were talking about this book. “It’s about death, and the funeral industry, but it’s kind of a memoir, but it has a lot of good information in it…” Okay, you had me at “death,” but the hype was sound. In her first book, mortician Caitlin Doughty blends memoir, straight nonfiction, and a dollop of shock (a big dollop) and transcends it all in a morally persuasive call for greater dignity and rationality in how we treat the dead. How did she do it?

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Smoke Gets In Your Eyes?

doughtyCaitlin: I never thought of myself as a writer. Big reader yes, but not a writer. But when I started working at the crematory seven years ago, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, the people I was meeting, the dead bodies I was coming across. “People need to hear about this!” I thought. I guess the way I rationalized writing a memoir in my 20s was that it wasn’t so much my life I was sharing, as it was the story of what was happening at the crematory and behind the scenes in the funeral industry.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Caitlin: It started as a private blog, with all of 11 readers. This allowed me to have a very honest record from the time period. Some of those stories ended up in the book virtually unchanged.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Caitlin: Oh geez, so poorly. Many notebooks, many Google docs, many notes in margins of research material. I have no good answer for this. This is the least inspirational answer ever.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Caitlin: Much of the first half of my day is meetings, emails, and all the bureaucratic steps for opening a funeral home. With a dash of social media thrown in. I really have to make time to research in the evening, when people need less from me. Writing happens best when I’m able to devote myself to it fully, so I usually try to go somewhere I can shut out the world.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Caitlin: I’m lucky that I live in Los Angeles, so really any book I could ever want is available in the public library system. They’re even delivered right to my local branch! I consider another great resource to be the people I work with. The death academics, the crematory operators, the embalmers who are experts in their areas. It allows me to say, “Hey, I need to know about exactly how long this kind of decomposition would take,” and someone will have an answer.

Bonus question: Will you continue writing books, either memoir or in other genres?

Caitlin: A few months ago I would have said no. But then my brain filled up its coffers with new ideas and experiences. I hate how the brain does that.

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How did you write that, Andrew Kaufman?

Kaufman-Author-Photo-2-199x300Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Modern Times begins with An Invitation to the Reader in which author Andrew Kaufman admits, “We’ve had our ups and downs, Tolstoy and I, our disagreements, even a couple of separations.” Sounds like a normal relationship…with an author who’s been dead for over 100 years?

Andrew’s love affair with War and Peace began when he was an undergraduate at Amherst College. In it he found “a strange, hopeful vision of the world as a place that does, in the end, make a kind of sense.” Twenty-five years later, he’s written a book that he hopes will prompt new readers to take up the quest.

Reading about Andrew’s long-term relationship with War and Peace, I was reminded of something John McPhee said about his own writing: “I once made a list of all the pieces I had written in maybe twenty or thirty years, and then put a check mark beside each one whose subject related to things I had been interested in before I went to college. I checked off more than ninety per cent.” I bet a lot of nonfiction writers could say the same. Make your own list — the topic for your next book might be on it.

Before we hear from Andrew about his writing process, a note: If you’re in the Charlottesville, Virginia area this winter, check out Andrew’s presentation at WriterHouse on December 7: “Descending from the Tower: From Academic to Popular Writing.”

In this interview you will learn:

  • How to find freedom in structure
  • About thematic organization
  • How incorporate a daily journal into your writing process


GWAPAC-Book-Cover-Final-e1413413853893HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Give War and Peace a Chance?

Andrew: War and Peace had been roaming in and out of my life for about twenty-five years—in almost a “When Harry Met Sally” kind of way. Each time I encountered the novel, it was a different book, evoking whatever was most alive inside me at that point. I happened to be rereading the novel in 2008, around the time of the financial crisis that was turning many peoples’ lives upside down—mine included. War and Peace became a new book yet again. I was able to clearly glimpse something I’d only vaguely understood in my previous readings: that whatever else this novel is, it’s a book about people trying to find their footing in an unstable, ever-changing world. How do you live in such times? Where do you find meaning and even joy in a troubled world? In 2008 these became deeply personal questions to me, and I sensed that many other people were—and are—struggling with them as well. I came to recognize War and Peace as the book for our times.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Andrew: Fortunately, much of the research had already been accomplished, since I’d spent many years thinking and writing about Tolstoy. My main tasks were to decide how to structure the book, and what not to include. After a lot of sifting, trial and error, I concluded that, since my focus was to be on Tolstoy’s wisdom, I would organize the book thematically, with each of the twelve chapters focusing on a single theme: love, happiness, family, death, perseverance, etc. There are twelve themes in all.

From that point on the thematic focus was primary, but then, after several months into the writing, I realized that I also wanted my book to roughly follow the plot of War and Peace itself. So I did a lot of rejiggering, changed the chapter order and some of the examples used in each chapter. That was quite a complicated process. Finally, it was important to me to interweave stories from the novel with stories from Tolstoy’s life and my own twenty-five year journey with Tolstoy. I had to decide which stories would be most appropriate in which chapters.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Andrew: This happens organically as I become clearer and clearer about what I’m trying to say in the book, and what I want the reader experience to be like. For example, once I settled on the thematic focus of Give War and Peace a Chance, I then went through War and Peace for about the fifteenth time and selected the passages that I thought would best illustrate Tolstoy’s wisdom on each of the twelve themes I discuss in my book. Perhaps the biggest organizational challenge was that there were four things happening simultaneously in my book: the thematic discussion, a digest of the plot of War and Peace, stories from Tolstoy’s life, and stories from my life. I first had to get clear on how I was going to prioritize each of these different layers–I prioritized them in the order listed here—and then I fit the examples and the stories into their appropriate place in the scaffolding.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Andrew: I try to carve out my mornings for writing, and my afternoons for business. I drop my son off at school, head over the Whole Foods, where I buy my iced tea and my oatmeal drenched in nuts and berries, and sit at my favorite table in the restaurant. I spend twenty minutes warming up by writing in my journal, and then I open my laptop and type away. I try to turn off my phone and ignore any incoming email notices. At about noon I head back to my other office and make calls, send emails, etc. During the research phase of writing, I’ll spend a few hours in the afternoon reading, but I always try to write something every day. When I teach, this schedule gets much messier, which is why I try to keep my teaching all on the same day. Structure and routine is critical for me as a writer. When I have that structure, I can then play and experiment creatively. A lack of disciplined routine actually inhibits rather than enhances my creative freedom.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Andrew: My daily journal has been a staple of my writing life. I got the idea from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and have religiously kept a journal for the past six years. I have almost two full shelves in my office filled with these journals. I find it is a wonderful way to get me warmed up, to tune into to what I’m feeling, and to write through those critical voices chattering away in my head. Also, whenever I read an article or a book and am not sure about the meaning of a word, I love looking it up in the dictionary. I make sure to keep up on contemporary events through daily news articles so I know what people are thinking and talking about. I always keep a good book at my bedside for late evening reading. Rarely will that book have anything directly to do with my current writing project. It’s just a way to stimulate my thinking in new directions and invite my subconscious to go to work while I sleep.

Bonus question: Did you incorporate any of Tolstoy’s writing habits into your own process?

Andrew: Yes. I married a good woman who loves me, supports me in my often tortuous writing process, and puts up with my eccentricities. When somebody gives me my own thousand-acre estate with 300 serfs and I no longer have to work for a living, then I’ll probably incorporate a few more of Tolstoy’s habits.

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How did you write that, Adam Henig?

Author-Photo-Adam-Henig-e1412788590841For his first book, Adam Henig set an audacious goal: self-publishing a biography of the creator of one of the biggest publishing phenomenons of the 20th century. Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey is the story of what Roots meant to the country — and to its author.

In this interview, you’ll learn how to:

  • Focus your topic
  • Keep up with self-publishing trends
  • Creatively test-drive a cover design


adam.henig_HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey?

Adam: I’ve always been fascinated with African American culture—books, film, music and politics. Five years ago, I was home all weekend, watching the Roots mini-series and when it ended, I was curious to find out what had happened to its author, Alex Haley. So, I searched his name on Google and was surprised and disappointed that there hadn’t been a biography written about him. At the time, I was an unpublished writer looking for a subject and as I began sifting through articles about Haley, I realized this was what I was looking for—an untold story of an American writer who reached the highest echelons of literary fame only to see it fade away.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Adam: Google News is a treasure trove of information for biographers. There were hundreds of articles I was able to easily access and document. From there I turned to books, periodicals, scoured a local university library for hard-to-find articles (from such publications as Saturday Evening Post and Coronet—both of which Haley had written for) and eventually made trips to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (Special Collections) and Harlem, New York, home to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Initially, I was planning to write a full-length biography, but after I completed my research, I realized that this was too great an undertaking given my limited schedule. Consequently, I decided to focus on the most tumultuous portion of Haley’s life—the period following the publication of Roots.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Adam: Every document I used I typed into a Microsoft Word file. Not only do I include my notes but the source’s title, author, copyright date, and publisher. Keep in mind, the sources are not in any particular order. My objective is simply to transfer the information to my computer. Once I’m done with my research, I outline the narrative (in chronological order). Then I go through all those files that include my notes and sources and begin copying and pasting them in each of the chapter headings. For example, any material I had on Haley about his years in the Coast Guard were placed in either USCG 1939-1949 or USCG 1950-1959. Or, if it had to do with the end of his life, I placed it in “Final Years.” It’s a simple process that, surprisingly, took me a while to perfect.

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Adam: I wish I had a schedule that could be entirely devoted to writing and research, but that does not exist for me (at this point). I’m not a full time writer. I have a full time job that has nothing to with publishing. Married with two little boys, any time I can allocate to writing or conducting research is limited. It is usually done at night, after the boys go to bed. I suppose the one advantage I have is that I can’t afford to get “writer’s block.” When I am working on book-related business, I’m usually doing one of the following: typing up notes from a source, working on a new blog post for my website, or catching up on the latest articles about the ever-changing publishing industry.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Adam: I’m not only a writer and a researcher but I am a publisher too. It’s not enough to keep abreast of my subjects that I’m writing about, but I need to know what are the latest trends in self-publishing because it is in a constant state of change (thanks to Amazon). The way I am able to stay informed is through podcasts and blog posts—for me, it’s the equivalent of Publisher’s Weekly. There are three podcasts that I listen to regularly—The Creative Penn, The Self Publishing Podcast, and the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast. And as for blogs, WiseInk, David Gaughran, and D.G. Kaye are my favorites.

Bonus question: You found a unique way to choose the cover design for Alex Haley’s Roots. Tell us about that process.

Adam: Beside the fact that the royalty split is 70/30 in favor of the author, the best part about being a self-published author is selecting your book cover. Since I’ve published my book in January, I’ve used two different covers. For the first one, I hired a professional designer who was recommended by my editor. The designer charged his standard fee for a single design. If I wanted another design, there would be an additional fee.

Following publication of Alex Haley’s Roots, I began having second thoughts on the cover. I wanted one that was more eye-catching. I began looking into other options. One day, while I was listening to The Self-Publishing Podcast, I had an epiphany. The podcast is sponsored by 99 Designs, a San Francisco-based web company that provides a marketplace for graphic designers to showcase their work based on a business’s needs.  The designers compete for the job (paid for by a business or an individual), and, whichever design is selected by the person(s) paying for the service, the winning artist receives two-thirds of the fee. 99 Designs takes the other third. The best part about working with 99 Designs is that there is no obligation if you don’t like any of the designs. You’ll receive a full refund. Actually, I’m paying the same amount for scores of designs instead of just one. In fact, I received nearly 200 submissions.

Although the decision in the end was mine, I conducted a poll among my blog readers to see which design they preferred. I’m glad I did because I ended up choosing the design that received the highest rating, different than the one I had initially favored.

5 Links for Nonfiction Authors — October 2, 2014

Five links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.

Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emccullough, or contact me here

  • “We have an absolutely false, energy-consuming, nit-picking attachment to an outdated procedure that now has much more to do with the sad psychology of academe than with the need to guarantee that the research is serious.” Do you agree?

  • “What is ghostwriting? How lucrative is it? How do I get started?”

  • “Conventional wisdom in the publishing industry suggests that a robust online presence, maintained by an author, will compensate for a non-existent marketing budget and that some uncoachable mix of wit and digital luck can propel an author from obscurity to fame. The reality is that successful online marketing, just like successful offline marketing, is driven by money. A social media presence with no cash behind it doesn’t do much for the average author when it comes to selling books, and squandering precious hours on building a platform that few people will ever see—hours that could otherwise be spent writing—is a mistake that can hurt your productivity and, therefore, your career.”

  • It’s a game. About writing.

How did you write that, Dr. Laurence Steinberg?

laurence-steinberg-249x300You may have heard that publishers want nonfiction authors to have a platform. What is a platform? Well, it’s a confusing concept. (Jane Friedman has one of the best explanations I’ve seen here.) In a nutshell, your platform is your means of reaching readers. Publishers like to know there’s an audience of readers out there who are predisposed to buy what you’ve written.

One proven author platform is professional expertise. If you are a recognized expert in your field, you have the influence and authority publishers — and readers — want to see in an author.

Of course, that means you have to find to time to build up professional experience and write books. Dr. Laurence Steinberg — a Temple University professor of psychology, member of numerous professional organizations, and the author of hundreds of studies and articles for professionals, parents, and the general public — has made the combination work. His latest book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, draws on and extends his extensive study of teens and young adults.
age.of_.opp_In this interview you’ll learn:

  • The power of sharing ideas with your network
  • Why you don’t have to know everything about your subject before you start
  • Ways to schedule your time for maximum productivity

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Age of Opportunity?

Laurence: The idea evolved over time. Originally, I planned on writing a book about the elongation of adolescence as a stage of life – in fact, the working title of the book was The Longest Decade. But as I wrote, and through conversations with my agent, Jim Levine, and my editor, Eamon Dolan, I came to see that this was probably not the main point I wanted to build the book around. The fact that adolescence is longer than ever is interesting, but the fact that it is a time of incredible brain “plasticity,” or malleability, is much more exciting, and has many more implications for parents, schools, and society. Unlike the previous books I had written, the narrative of Age of Opportunity changed a lot as I wrote it.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Laurence: I think my work on the project really began when I started searching for a new literary agent. I was emailing with the terrific journalist and author, Jennifer Senior (All Joy and No Fun), who had interviewed me for a piece she was writing about adolescence. I told her what I was thinking about and she encouraged me to develop it into a book proposal. I began emailing agents I was interested in working with, which forced me to put into words the ideas that were just only beginning to gel. I’m sure that if I were to go back to those initial emails, I’d see a very different idea for a book than what I ultimately wrote. Once I decided to sign with Jim (Levine) and started writing a proposal to take to different publishers, he and I began talking and emailing about the book and, as we did, it became clear that the focus of the book should be the fact that adolescence is the new “zero-to-three.” I give Jim credit for that. The next step was developing a final proposal, which is when the outline of the book really took form, although even that changed as I began working with Eamon (Dolan).

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

I’m pretty obsessive in this regard. I write detailed outlines for each chapter and then create folders on my computer that correspond to different sections. Because the book covers a lot of topics I’ve been studying for some time, I knew where to go for the latest research findings. As a professor at a major research university, I automatically have online access to virtually every academic journal that is published. So it was fairly easy for me to find the most important articles published on each topic, download them, and file them on my computer. As I read, I’d discover new leads and follow them up by tracking down articles that had been referenced. Because I’m trained as a scientist, I know how to go through a scientific publication fairly quickly and find the information I need. If I didn’t understand something (some of the brain science was very technical, and I’m not a neuroscientist by training), I’d email the author with questions or ask one of my colleagues. People were amazingly generous with their time. I suppose it helps to be a member of the same “club.”

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Laurence: A typical day of research in connection with writing Age of Opportunity involved a lot of internet “foraging.” I’d come across an interesting paper that raised a point I hadn’t considered, then I’d start searching for more information on the topic. I’d keep at it until I felt that I had gotten a handle on it. I learned so much while working on this book. For example, in one part of the book I needed to explain why the age of puberty had continued to drop, so I started poking around the endocrinology literature. Then I serendipitously discovered a couple of papers from a group of scientists in France showing that kids who live near the equator go through puberty earlier than those who live closer to the poles, and that this had something to do with exposure to light. This then led me into the literature on brain chemistry and how exposure to light affects melatonin production, which in turn affects the production of a substance called “kisspeptin,” which triggers the onset of puberty. One of the factoids I discovered is that kisspeptin got its name because it was discovered in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where chocolate “kisses” are manufactured. So those research days were a lot of fun, and I never knew where the foraging would take me.

I keep a very disciplined schedule when I am actually writing. I tend to do my best work in the morning, so I’m usually at my desk by 7. I always begin by rereading and editing the chapter I’m working on at the time. I start at the beginning of the chapter, no matter how far along I had gotten the previous day, and edit the material again. Then I start writing new material where the old stuff left off. I force myself to write at least 1,000 words of new material a day. Writers have different styles – some are slow and methodical, and their first drafts are very similar to their final drafts. That’s not me. I write very quickly and then do a lot of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. I also try to get up and walk around my study a bit every hour or so. When I’ve hit the wall (as long as I have 1,000 new words), I stop and head to the gym. When I get back, it’s usually cocktail hour.

Days when I’m promoting the book vary a lot, so it is hard to generalize. Usually I’ll have a series of phone interviews for live or taped radio, or for podcasts, which have been arranged by my publisher. During the intense period following the book’s launch, I travelled around the country doing a combination of media interviews (some in person, others by phone from my hotel room) and evening lectures.

What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Laurence: As I mentioned earlier, the most important tool for me is unlimited online access to scientific journals through my university’s library. My favorite writing tool is actually The New Yorker. I love the rhythm of their good nonfiction pieces, and I try to get that rhythm into my head, almost like a piece of music. It actually doesn’t matter what the topic is — in fact, I try not to read things on topics that are very close to what I’m working on. But during times when I’m writing, I read a lot of nonfiction from that magazine. I also like to read and reread Phillip Lopate’s great essay, “Waiting for the Book to Come Out” during the time between submitting the manuscript and publication.  It helps keep expectations realistic.

Bonus question: You have studied and written extensively about adolescence for forty years. What keeps this subject fresh for you?

Laurence: I find it endlessly fascinating, and there is always new research being published, so there are always new things to think about. Because I still am actively teaching and doing research — and have a textbook that I have to revise and update every three years — I need to stay on top of things. My problem is never a shortage of things that are interesting. It’s that there is always too much to read, and too little time.

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