Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Charles Alexander

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 can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in the publishing industry, 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.

Charles Alexander is the founder and prime mover behind Chax Press, a nonprofit publisher and studio.  As he describes it on the website Chax “publishes writing that does not take things for granted — things like “what is a poem,”"what is an author,” or “what does it mean to read?”  Walt Whitman said, “Reading is a gymnast’s act.”  We strive to make books that reward such exercise in stunning ways.”

Whether working with handset type, Vandercook proof press, carved wood blocks, linen threads and fine papers, or with computers, Chax Press books celebrate the changing shape of American poetry by presenting experimental works with humanist commitment.  Chax also brings its work to the public in ways other than in books, sponsoring poetry readings, writers- and artists-in-residence, exhibitions, and more events that encourage a public investigation as to the nature and importance of contemporary poetry and book arts.

Chax Press was founded in 1984 in Tucson. More than 50 books have followed between then and the present, including several published during Chax’s three years (1993-96) in Minneapolis, where Alexander served as Executive Director of Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

In general, Chax Press publishes experimentalist works that share a strong humanist commitment. Chax Press chapbooks are published in small editions and mix desktop publishing technologies with hand bookbinding practices and, at times, fine art papers.

I’ve known Charles Alexander for many years and love the work he has done with Chax.  I thought it would be extremely rewarding to talk to him about modern publishing and his vision of books and readers, especially now, when the current talk about digital publishing dominates our environment.  Anyone who has set type, printed pages and made paper by hand for a living is certain to possess a valuable perspective on the literal relationship between word and eye that still is so important to the work of publishers in any environment.  Charles and I had a great time talking about Chax and its wonderful work.

The Chax website is well worth a visit, as is Charles’ blog, and if you find yourself in Tucson, go see the Chax Press facility, which is a wonderful and central hub of the Tucson poetry and arts community.

Steve Lehto: Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation

March 24, 2011 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1569765494 – Hardcover – Chicago Review Press – $24.95 (e-book edition available)

Steve Lehto’s portrait of the Chrysler Corporation’s amazing effort to engineer a turbine powered automobile is a terrific book, and alot of fun to read.  You don’t have to love cars to enjoy this book, though I am sure it helps.  But even if you don’t care about engines, and the dedicated engineers who spent years working on the turbine car program, you will learn a great deal about the industrial, social and cultural history of post World War II America.

Like so many kids who grew up in the 50s and 60s, I was enthralled with cars of all kinds, and when the Chrysler Turbine was first unveiled in 1964, along with millions of other Americans, I was fascinated and captivated by it – not only was it a beautifully designed car, futuristic and smooth, but it featured an engine like nothing else the world had ever seen up to that time.  It was the Jet Age in automotive design, and here was a car with an airplane inspired engine in it.

The Chrysler Turbine represents an incredible commitment on the part of a major American automobile manufacturer to develop and popularize a truly radical alternative powerplant to the American driving public.

Chrysler’s turbine could run on almost any fuel – diesel, peanut oil, perfume, even tequila.  Imagine what would have happened if the company had been able to devote hundreds of thousands more engineering and testing hours to the development of this engine over an additional 40 or 50 years.  It’s entirely possible that we would not be worrying about hybrids, diesels and electric cars today.  Reading Chrysler’s Turbine Car will give you a great understanding of the challenges any major new automotive development must face in order to become widely popular.

After a number of years of development and several generations of engine development, Chrysler hand built 50 examples of the the Turbine (that was its only name) and made them available to selected members of the general public for testing.  Drivers could keep the cars for three months and were required to keep detailed logs of their experiences.  Chrysler personnel maintained all the cars, flying all over America to repair and sometimes rescue cars that had problems, large or small.  In all, the fleet registered over a million miles of testing, and performed extraordinarily well.  Chrysler gained a huge amount of publicity and increased sales of their regular new cars, as well as learning a tremendous amount through the extensive practical use of their radically designed and built Turbine car by real drivers.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, Chrysler ultimately abandoned the program completely, and destroyed most of the cars they had built.  Only a few were saved and sent to museums to be put on display – which is where most of them still are today.  Interestingly, Jay Leno was able to buy one of Chrysler’s own survivors and now drives it regularly. Author Lehto was able to drive Leno’s Turbine as part of his research for the book, and Leno contributed a foreword to this book.

Lehto interviewed every surviving member of the Chrysler team that built and maintained the cars during their short period of glory.  He also spoke to many of the people who were lucky enough to be participants in the public lending program; their stories help make the book a fun and enjoyable read.

In many ways it is understandable why the Turbine car program was killed by Chrysler, even after so much effort and money had been invested in it.  For a single car manufacturer to introduce a radical new powerplant completely outside the mainstream of engineering practice was ultimately economically unsustainable.  But it’s impossible for us not to regret that Chrysler gave up on the multi-fuel efficient turbine in 1967, especially today, as we are facing a future when do not have a viable alternative engine to replace our dependable and thirsty reciprocating gasoline dependent engines.

This is a fun and worthwhile book to read, whether you are interested in cars, American history, culture, business or general nonfiction.  Author Lehto, an adjunct professor at University of Detroit – Mercy, has written a very readable book, full of interesting characters and great stories you don’t have to be a car nut to enjoy.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Michael Jacobs

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 can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in the publishing industry, 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.

Michael Jacobs is the Chief Executive Officer at Abrams Books.  He started out in publishing as a page in the main branch of the Oakland (CA) Public Library and was the first sales rep hired by Bookpeople, the innovative and much missed employee-owned Berkeley wholesaler of independent press books (which is when I first met him – late 1970s).

From there Michael moved to Penguin USA, starting as a sales representative based in the Pacific Northwest and quickly rising to become President of the Viking Penguin division and a member of the board of directors. He then served as Executive Vice President of Simon and Schuster’s Trade division, Publisher of the Free Press, and Senior Vice President in Scholastic’s trade book group.

At Scholastic, Michael was responsible for the publishing, marketing, sales and distribution of the most successful books in publishing history—the first five Harry Potter books, which sold over 80 million copies in the US.  He joined Abrams in 2004, and has directed the company successfully through virtually a complete business makeover.  During his time at Abrams, the company has launched the best-selling Wimpy Kid series – which has sold 42 million copies in North America and has been published in over 36 countries, as well as a number of other highly successful books and series.

Founded by Harry N. Abrams in 1949, Abrams was the first company in the United States to specialize in the creation and distribution of art and illustrated books. It is now a subsidiary of La Martinière Groupe.   Abrams is best  known as a publisher of high quality illustrated books, especially art, photography, cooking , gardening, crafts, sports and children’s books.  In recent years, under Michael’s direction Abrams has successfully broadened its reach, especially in pop culture and comic arts.  I wanted to talk to Michael about his work at Abrams – not the least because illustrated books have faced so many different kinds of challenges in the past few years and he and his team at Abrams have been so successful throughout.  But I also think his experience across a variety of trade publishing genres and company sizes (independent press, adult, childrens and illustrated books, large companies as well as smaller ones) gives him a unique perspective on the past, present, and future of publishing, in both print and digital formats that is valuable for others in the book industry to hear.

Michael’s success at Abrams may provide ideas and inspiration to many in publishing who are looking for ways to help remake their companies as the retail landscape continues to evolve and change.  He is always cogent and incisive in his thoughts, and is someone whom I have always enjoyed talking with about books and ideas.

Harry Hamlin: Full Frontal Nudity

March 13, 2011 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-1439169995 -  Hardcover – Scribner – $24.00 (e-book edition available)

Harry Hamlin’s autobiographical memoir is not what you might expect if you are looking for a traditional “famous actor” tells-all but really tells-very-little story.  Full Frontal Nudity is a completely honest, sometimes hilarious, sometimes sad, sometimes mind-boggling story about Hamlin’s growing up in suburban California and coming of age through two different college experiences and the beginning of his life as a professional actor.

This book is a thorough pleasure to read; Harry is a fine writer, and has a remarkable sense of the accidents and sometimes mysteries that go into making us who we are.   And it’s also true throughout, whether intentional or not, by telling his own story, he becomes part of the larger social fabric of the 50′s, 60′s and early 70′s, and thus helps us understand what it was like to be alive during that now famous era of history.  And for those many of us who were also there then, his story will remind us of some of the beauty and dangers we lived through.

The subtitle of this engaging memoir is important too: “The Making of an Accidental Actor.” Hamlin is clear that who he is today and how he got there represent the sum of a long series of accidents and choices with unintended consequences.  As the book opens, we discover that Harry has an arrest record from 40 years ago that has suddenly prevented him from traveling to Canada, where he actually now lives part of each year.

How this happened is a great story, but what I liked most about it was the way that Harry told it on himself, unafraid to bare the truth about his life.  I know that really good actors must learn how to do this, but they’re usually acting someone else’s drama, and thus are always protected on some level.  There’s no hiding here, and it’s a refreshing turn.  Hamlin is an actor, and a good one

Hamlin grew up in California, in a not quite normal household, and after high school headed for Berkeley at what some would say was just the right time – 1969.  On the way to college, he managed an accidental detour that got him, shall we say, distracted.  Intending to sign up for an architecture major, he found that there were no courses available, and the only ones available were drama, thus he embarked on what would eventually become his career.  His time at Berkeley was suitably exotic, and included the drug possession arrest that later caused him so much trouble with the Canadian immigration folks.  His time at Berkeley came to an untimely and early end because of a fire at the fraternity whose president he had become, and almost by magic, and again accidentally, he headed for Yale, where he flourished.  Then another more or less accidental turn – he gives up a safe job as a PBS production assistant and takes an offer from the American Conservatory Theater, where a role in the play Equus ultimately led him to an outstanding film and TV career (notably LA Law, many others).

Overall Full Frontal Nudity is a terrific and wonderfully enjoyable book, and unsurprisingly, we had a thoroughly interesting and revealing conversation about the book and many of the stories he wrote about.

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Phil Ollila

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 can help us understand the outlines of what is happening in the publishing industry, 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.

Philip Ollila (widely known as Phil in the book industry) is the Chief Content Officer of Ingram Content Group Inc., one of the largest distributors of book content and providers of digital printing in the North American book industry.  Phil is responsible for Ingram Content Group’s publisher facing business, and has been instrumental in leading the transformation of Ingram from a traditional wholesale service provider, into what is now a fully integrated solutions company for clients. Ingram combines wholesale distribution, print-on-demand, digital distribution, inventory management and comprehensive worldwide services for both physical and digital content.

Phil leads a number of Ingram business units including wholesale merchandising, Lightning Source, Ingram Publisher Services and digital distribution through CoreSource® and also heads up Ingram Content Group marketing.  Before joining Ingram, where he has held several leadership positions, he was Vice President of Marketing and Merchandising for Borders.

Anyone in the book business, and many people outside it know about Ingram.  It is one of the two large book wholesalers transitioning from a key role in the physical supply chain between publishers and retailers.  Perhaps earlier than any other large company in the industry, Ingram had the foresight to invest in a range of services that would enhance their offerings to both their suppliers (mainly publishers) and their customers (bookstores, libraries and many other retailers).  In many ways, it is only the two large former traditional wholesalers, Ingram and its competitor Baker & Taylor that have the unique perspective and ability to act as really powerful and influential transformative agencies as the book business evolves into a combination of print and digital products.

Phil Ollila is therefore now in a key role at a tremendously interesting and  fast moving business that possesses a great deal of information valuable to publishers and to anyone interested in how publishing, books and readers will interact in the future, both near term and much, much farther into the future.

Lou Aronica: Blue

March 5, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1936558001  – paperback – The Fiction Studio -  $16.95 (e-book versions available $7.99)

Lou Aronica’s Blue is an unusual novel, combining elements of science fiction, fantasy, romance and serious fiction, to create a moving story that focuses on the relationship between a daughter and her father in a terrifically moving and affecting way.  Lou is an experienced and skillful writer who deftly manages to tell a story that is full of sadness and emotion and manages to avoid the deeply sentimental that might otherwise overtake the reader.  Which is not to say it is not a story that will affect the reader – and some may find it difficult going, to say the least.

Reviewers and interviewers must always be careful in describing any novel’s storyline, to avoid ruining the book for prospective readers.  For those who don’t want to know too much, let’s just say that Blue takes on family relationships in the face of grave illness in a beautifully imagined way.  There is plenty of sadness in this novel, but Aronica succeeds in the true storyteller’s art, the transformation within a story to something greater than the experience itself.

The book is set in a contemporary suburban Connecticut much like the one the author actually lives in, so the characters and settings are all familiar and well told.  At the heart of the story is the relationship between Chris Astor and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Becky, and her mother, from whom Chris is now divorced.   Facing the greatest challenge of their lives, they must all learn to trust each other, and ultimately to believe in imagination and its transformational power, in order to come to terms with what is happening to them.

Blue is a remarkable and uplifting novel.  I think Lou Aronica has succeeded in his goal for this book (from his website): “I wanted to write a novel that conveyed my feelings about the incomparable value of imagination and hope. Blue puts its characters through the wringer, but it is at its heart an extremely optimistic novel.”

Full disclosure: I am happy to say that Lou is someone whose friendship I value.  I do want to say, also, that even if I just like a book and don’t love it, I’m unlikely to want to write about it and certainly won’t want to talk about it with the author.  I feel my responsibility as an interviewer requires that I really get into a book in order to be able to ask meaningful questions about it and talk about it intelligently.  I don’t love every book I read, but I truly do deeply enjoy and admire every book I write about here and talk about with their authors.  For me, there is no question that Blue is a terrific book and my conversation with Lou reflects that assessment. This is a book I am happy to recommend to readers, and I think it will be especially moving to anyone who is the parent of children of any age.