Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Allee Willis

December 28, 2010 by  
Filed under PublishingTalks, Technology, The Future

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

Allee Willis is one of my all-time favorite people.  She is best known as a spectacular and hugely successful songwriter; her songs for Earth, Wind and Fire and the Pointer Sisters were giant hits, she wrote the theme song for “Friends,” the music for the Oprah Winfrey produced Broadway musical production of “The Color Purple, collaborated with the web sensation Pomplamoose (Jungle Music), and as of the date of this posting, her song “I’m Here” was sung by Jennifer Hudson for Oprah Winfrey’s Kennedy Center Honor Award.  But all of this musical success notwithstanding, as she herself says, Allee is “a one-woman creative think-tank. A multi-disciplinary artist and visionary thinker whose range of imagination and productivity knows no bounds, her success exuberantly defies categorization-’unique’ pales as a descriptor.”  You have to visit her website to begin to get an idea of what a creative powerhouse she is.  Her Allee Willis Museum of Kitsch is not to be missed.  She’s constantly creating, integrating music, art, video, multi-media technology and lifestyle via a series of work which she co-composes, sings, plays, produces, draws, animates, directs, designs web worlds for and stars in. The first release, “Allee Willis Presents Bubbles & Cheesecake “It’s A Woman Thang”-part of a 6-song collaboration with singer-songwriter Holly Palmer (aka Cheesecake) was selected as Official Honoree in the 2008 Webby Awards, and won three 2008 W3 Awards. Her second video, “Allee Willis Presents Bubbles & Cheesecake “Editing Is Cool” was also ‘featured’ on YouTube. At one point, Willis’ 2009 video “Hey Jerrie,” co-starring 91-year-old female drummer on an oxygen tank Jerrie Thill, was the 12th most popular video in the world on YouTube.

I wanted to talk to Allee mainly because she has been working with the internet in her work almost since the ‘web went public – as she points out, the ‘web itself is her medium.  She is the ultimate social being, her work itself is social art, her medium is her life.  Anyone working in an artistic discipline today can learn from what she knows and how she conducts herself as an artist.  I loved talking to Allee about her work and what she knows – which is a tremendous amount.  And now I am addicted to her website too.  Writers and publishers, please pay attention to what she has to say: art is social! books are bait!

Jaimy Gordon: Lord of Misrule

December 18, 2010 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-0-929701-83-7 – Hardcover – McPherson & Company – $25.00

I can’t say enough good things about Jaimy Gordon’s writing, up to and including Lord of Misrule, this year’s winner of the National Book Award.  Although she has been writing for the past 40 years, producing five wonderful, interesting novels and a number of smaller works during that time, for the most part Jaimy’s audience has been small.  Perhaps this is fitting for someone whose work does not easily fit the standard categories of commercial fiction, as the structure of the publishing and bookselling machinery has not provided much room for many writers and books outside the mainstream for quite some time.

That said, Jaimy Gordon is simply a terrific writer and Lord of Misrule may well be her best book yet.  It’s set in a mythical down-and-out racetrack Indian Mound Downs, downriver from Wheeling, West Virginia.  There are five main characters, all from disparate and desultory backgrounds, but all connected by their wishes, dreams and aspirations, which drive them and the novel forward.  And the book is constructed of four sections, each named for a particular horse in a particular race.  The story unfolds almost magically, and it’s one of those books that is literally impossible to put down.  I was hooked early on and loved the ride the author took me on, peopled by wonderful down and out Runyonesque characters who speak amazing dialogue in the voices of Appalachian region horse people, and of course beautiful horses throughout.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the book that gets across a bit of the style of the book (and you can download a PDF excerpt of the novel at the publisher website here):

“They were all looking for a van like a Chinese jewel box, like no horse van that had ever been seen on a backside, something red and black and glossy, with gold letters, LORD OF MISRULE, arched across each side. All the same when a plain truck with Nebraska plates rolled in . . . they knew who it was. They were watching, though the van was unmarked and dirty white, one of those big box trailers with rusty quilting like an old mattress pad you’ve given to the dog. The van bounced and groaned on its springs along the backside fence, headed for the stallman’s office. Red dust boiled around it. They blinked as it dragged two wheels through the puddle that never dried, the puddle that had no bottom. . . . They peered through the vents when the van went by and saw the horse’s head, calm, black and poisonous of mien as a slag pile in a coal yard . . .

The van stopped, woof, down comes the ramp and a kid, unhealthy-looking like all racetrack kids, worm white, skull bones poking out of his skinny head, stood at the top of the ramp with a small black horse that couldn’t even stand right: Lord of Misrule . . . rocked on the flat floor of the van like a table with one short leg. And those legs – they were so swelled out from long-ago bowed tendons on both sides that they were one straight line from knee to ankle, drainpipes without contour. ”

I’ve been reading (and admiring) Jaimy’s work for a long time, since her first published work Shamp of the City-Solo was thrust into my hands by her publisher Bruce McPherson probably in 1975.  It’s a thrill to see her work recognized more widely and gratifying to know that this excellent writer will now always have a much larger audience for her writing.  She and this new book are getting great coverage in all sorts of media.  Here’s an excellent profile of Jaimy by Chip McGrath in the New York Times: Writer Races to Victory From Way Off the Pace.  There have been many others, many of which have focused more on the storyline of “obscure writer finds sudden fame” than on her book and writing career.

I wanted to spend a good amount of time talking in detail with Jaimy specifically about this book, Lord of Misrule, along with something of the story of how this book came to be published (it’s a good story, reflecting much about the nature of independent publishing and serious fiction – discussed in more detail in my companion interview with publisher Bruce McPherson).

Jaimy Gordon is a terrific writer who has a lot of important things to say, and I’m very pleased to have had this opportunity to talk to her about her work.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk Interviews Bruce McPherson

December 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks, The Future

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

I have had some really interesting conversations with people in the publishing industry this year.  The present is a time of great upheaval and change for many in publishing.  Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Andrew Steves of Canada’s relatively tiny Gaspereau Press, just before their book, The Sentimentalists won that country major book award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize.  Soon after, I was able to talk to Bruce McPherson of McPherson & Co., about his many years of publishing and the great news that his recently published Lord of Misrule by old friend Jaimy Gordon had won the National Book Award (quite a surprise for all!).  It’s unusual enough for a major national book award to recognize the work of independently published books, but to have two almost simultaneously in both the US and Canada must mean something about these times.  In other words, I don’t think these are outlier events.

As it happens, I’ve known Bruce and Jaimy for about as long as I have known anyone, going back to when Bruce began publishing as Treacle Press right after graduating Brown in the early 1970′s.  The first book he published was Jaimy’s superb and inventive novel, Shamp of the City-Solo.  I read that book because Bruce told me I must, and loved its wildly inventive story and Jaimy’s brilliant writing.  I’ve been a fan and reader of hers ever since.  Bruce has published a wide range of interesting books in film, art and fiction.  He’s developed a clear vision of who, what and how he will operate as a publisher, and has managed to invent a working business model that in many ways reflects his own independent thinking and unwillingness to compromise art for common business demands.

In many ways, the recognition of Jaimy Gordon as a great writer is a recognition of Bruce McPherson as a great publisher, and a validation of a somewhat old fashioned notion of commitment and loyalty to art, talent and human beings.  Writers as living, breathing, suffering artists whose publishers support them, prod them to do their best work, and love them unabashedly and without compromise.  That may sound sentimental in these harsh times, but it’s a sentiment I am willing to cherish and celebrate.  I admire Bruce and the body of work he has produced in more than 35 years of struggle.

Neither Bruce nor McPherson & Co. promote anything other than the books and authors themselves, i.e., it’s not about the publisher, it’s about the books.  I very much enjoyed the opportunity, therefore, to shine a bit of light on Bruce and his work, and hopefully to illuminate something of what his publishing has meant and means for our culture.  And of course the experience of winning the NBA is present throughout.  I hope listeners will enjoy this podcast in tandem with my current interview with Jaimy Gordon as well.

Paul David Pope: The Deeds of My Fathers

December 12, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1442204867 – Hardcover – $24.95 – Philip Turner/Rowman & Littlefield (e-book editions available at $9.99)

Well this is truly an amazing 20th century American story, and really well told by the author, who spent many years working on this book.  There are characters here as big as those in any historical novel. The full title of the book gets to what the story is about: The Deeds of My Fathers: How My Grandfather and Father Built New York and Created the Tabloid World of Today.

Paul David Pope’s grandfather, Generoso Pope Sr., came to this country alone and poor, at a very young age seeking a better life, as so many other immigrants did.  That part of the story is hardly unique.  But he was obviously a very special sort of person, and it did not take him very long, through hard work, intelligence and a certain amount of ruthlessness, to create a building trades empire in the greatest city in America, New York City.

His companies supplied the concrete that literally built the city in the boom years of New York.  But he also managed to buy and control this country’s primary Italian language newspaper, Il Progresso, and his wealth, power and connections (including political kingmakers, the mob, and even FDR as well as the Pope) made him one of this country’s leading and most influential Italian Americans. Because he was able to use his newspaper to influence elections, he essentially became a kingmaker in the old school of American politics, and was truly an iconic emblem of his times.

But author Pope does not shy away from telling us the ugly along with the good.  His grandfather was far too close to Mussolini in the 1930s, and was blatantly used by the Fascists to try to influence American public opinion in their favor during the lead up to World War II.  And he was far from being a good husband and father.  He always favored his youngest son, Gene (author Pope’s father), and selected him to run his businesses, over his older and more experienced brothers.

Early on, Gene Americanized his name to Pope. He was pushed out of the family business after his father’s death by his mother and his two older brothers.  At that point, Gene, with a loan secured from his “Uncle Frank” Costello, bought a newspaper in decline, the New York Enquirer.  With a combination of dedication and a brilliant natural understanding of what average readers would want to read, he created the pinnacle of all tabloids, the National Enquirer.  Of course, the support of his Uncle Frank did not come without strings, and Frank required that the paper stop attacking the mob in its stories, and in fact it was to publish only positive stories about projects the mob was backing, and even that the Enquirer would attack and discredit the enemies and opponents of organized crime – which it did without hesitation.

But the heart of Gene Pope’s story is his single minded dedication to the newspaper he loved.  He moved the company to Florida and made it almost the only thing he cared about.  As he grew older, he was clearly eccentric in his behavior (some might say nighly neurotic and disturbed).  But throughout, Gene Pope gives readers what they want, and as the National Enquirer covers the paranormal, medical cures, celebrities, always attentive to what the average American would read, and circulation soars, peaking with the 7 million copies sold of the Enquirer’s 1977 exposé on the death of Elvis Presley.

Paul David Pope gives us a fast paced, almost novelistic version of his family’s history.  His story is based on hundreds of interviews, and a huge amount of research, but of course much of what happened in the earlier part of the story is reconstructed from the documentary record.  It is a gripping narrative, and a compelling story for anyone who cares about the modern history of the United States as lived by some of its more colorful and successful citizens, and the author gets across the complexity of his real life family in their non-stop rush to make their marks.

Talking to the author gave me a chance to delve into the background of the story, what motivated Paul to do all this work and stay with it for so long, and for him to talk about how his family history has affected his own life.  There’s more about the book at the author’s website too.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk Interviews Betsy Lerner

December 9, 2010 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks, The Future

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

A few weeks ago I read a piece by Betsy Lerner in Publishing Perspectives, the excellent online newsletter about the publishing business edited by Ed Nawotka.  It was called “Should I Tweet” and was adapted from the new updated edition of Betsy’s book “The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice for Writers.”  It’s a great piece, that says some important things about marketing and publishing aimed at writers (but good for everyone else in publishing to read too), and instantly made me want to talk to her (and buy her book).  This little quote from near the end of the essay really grabbed me:

“I’m not saying that everyone can or should be creating a personal literary dynasty, but it’s essential for authors to be thinking about how to market themselves. Always has been. Sometimes they cry, “but I’m no good at marketing,” or “Isn’t that the publisher’s job?” I think publishers should help authors think about what they can do early on in the process, whether it’s creating a blog, developing mailing lists, or getting speaking engagements lined up. If you’re lucky enough to be signed up without a platform, start working on one! Marketing and selling books is not for the faint of heart. Whitman knew that. Palahniuk knows it. Jay Conrad Levinson preaches it.

But no one knew it better than P.T. Barnum, “Without promotion something terrible happens,” he said. “Nothing!”

Betsy is herself of course, a terrific writer, as well as being a successful agent.  I admire her blog, where she extends the work she did in The Forest for the Trees.  She is funny and smart, entertaining and instructive, and obviously talented.  Her opinions are definitely worth knowing, and her advice for writers is always great stuff.  She’s a poet, and was for many years a successful commercial editor, and then became an agent with a great list of client writers; she is a partner at the Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency.  She wrote another book called Food and Loathing about her issues with eating and depression. She received an MFA from Columbia University in Poetry and was the recipient of a Thomas Wolfe Poetry Prize, an Academy of American Poets Poetry Prize, and was one of PEN’s Emerging Writers in 1987. She also received the Tony Godwin Publishing Prize for Editors Under 35.  And Betsy also gives talks on every aspect of the publishing process from her perspective as a writer, former editor and agent.

We had a great conversation about books, publishing and marketing, during which I learned a few things and gained some valuable insights.  A key point she makes is how important it is for writers to understand their role in the publishing process.  While we are certainly in a period of heightened difficulties, the challenges writers (and publishers) face today are really not that different from what they have always been.  The specific tools we use may change, but the principles of marketing books remain the same.  Writers are in fact entrepreneurs, and not just “writers” and they must always be engaged in the public process of publishing, in a measure most likely equal to their own actual abilities.  And she also reminds us of the central matter: that the quality of the work must always be the focus of everything.  Everything else is secondary.

After talking to Betsy, I’m now looking forward to reading The Forest for the Trees – and sooner rather than later.

Kevin Baker: Luna Park (Graphic Novel)

December 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Fiction, Graphic Novels, WritersCast

978-1401224264 – paperback – Vertigo – $14.99

Luna Park is an outstanding first graphic novel by historian and novelist Kevin Baker.  Baker is certainly well-known for his best selling New York City based trilogy of historical novels (Paradise Alley, Dreamland and Strivers Row).  And recently he was the consultant for the History Channel’s extremely fine mini-series, America: The Story of Us, as well as being the author of its companion book.

Luna Park is centered on a former Russian soldier, Alik, who fought in Chechniya now living in Coney Island, working as the enforcer for a small time Russian mobster.  He is addicted to heroin, and haunted by his memories of the horrors of the war and his own part in it.  He desperately loves the prostitute Marina, whose daughter is held captive by the mob boss as a way to keep her under his control.

Alik comes up with a desperate plan he has convinced himself will save Marina, her daughter and himself.  It’s at this point that the story takes a turn, as Alik discovers he is destined to repeat his past lives repeatedly, including a few pasts the present Alik does not know he had.   There are flashes from present- day run down Coney Island to the Russia of 10 years ago during the Second Chechen War to an earlier time period in Coney Island, when the area was at its peak as an amusement park that really was amazing to behold.

Baker keeps us traveling with him throughout, even though the story is complex, the pain palpable and the suffering of the characters in their struggles seems to never let up.  The work of the artist Danilej Zezelj is perfectly suited for this story.  His art is dark, powerful and energetic, and adds tremendously to the strength of the story.  DC Comics deserves praise putting Baker and Zezelj together, it’s a terrific collaboration.

Kevin Baker and I talked at length about this, his first graphic novel, both in the context of his work as a fiction writer and historian, and of course his deep interest in the City of New York, especially its seamier areas like Coney Island, as well as how writing a graphic novel in collaboration with an artist is different from other types of writing.  we were able to range widely about a number of other subjects, making this conversation one I hope listeners will particularly enjoy.