2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Friday, December 24, 2010

Signing Books, Getting in the Christmas Spirit

Me at Books and Company, Lexington, VA 12-19-10

What is more Christmassy for a writer than hanging out days before December 25 in a cool small-town independent bookstore, signing your own book? Not much. Surrounded by happy, laughing book-people shopping local by buying books? Perfect.

You can't help but think of all those years of getting books for Christmas: now people are giving your book to friends and family. It warms the heart, just as reading A Christmas Carol does, every year, without fail.  

You, the author, are now part of that great chain of holiday book giving, going back to Gutenberg (well, maybe starting a few years after his printing press; it took awhile, after all, for non-manuscript books to catch on, not to mention literacy). Going back, anyway, to when you were ten and a favorite aunt gave you a leather-bound copy of Little Women for Christmas and you never looked back.

This Christmas, 2010, at the end of months of Gutenberg-like revolutions in the book business, I couldn't help but think, as I signed my book near home this week in Lexington and Richmond, that all the indies I came across in my recent book tour, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., might not only survive but thrive once the New Book Order comes to pass. 

Independent booksellers have made it this far and now nobody knows what's coming next in the book business -- except that the race may go to the small and the nimble. Social marketing is changing the game by the day. Independent booksellers are getting a cut of e-book sales. Their superb customer service and ambiance are winning hearts and minds. A passionate reaction is emerging, insisting that the bound book shall not disappear. 

Anthony Powell, the English author of the 12-volume masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, wrote that books do furnish a room. Let's expand on that and say that bound books do furnish a life.

So, while we still have them and hope we always will: God bless us -- writers, publishers, editors, booksellers, book buyers -- every one. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Totally Subjective List of the Best Books of 2010

Aren't all such lists subjective? 

So why not make such a list totally subjective: "I chose these books because they were written by my friends (and me)." You have a problem with that?

It's hard enough getting a slice of media attention. Let's all pitch in and spin our friends, the people we can vouch for as hard workers, brilliant thinkers, and consummate professionals.  

As we come to the end of yet another challenging year, I offer these 2010 books as worthy of your attention and wallet. Buy and read any and all of them. You will be glad you did.

A Totally Subjective List of the Best Books of 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Writer's Heaven

Me reading from Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe at the launch of the Marmauke Writing Factory, Pleasantville, NY, Dec. 15, 2010. 
Spending several years writing non-fiction narrative is kind of like being a spy. No one knows where you are for weeks at a time. You float from archive to archive, a parasite sucking information from sources (archivists) deeply undercover in the bowels of historical societies and Special Collections in places like Canton, Oklahoma City, Cooperstown, and downtown Los Angeles. If you're into it, it's irresistible.
You have to have the instincts -- and passion -- of a sleuth. Or a bloodhound, nose to the ground, following the scent to the source. 

Then you have to write up into persuasive narrative written form all the information you've found. Hole up in an office somewhere -- like upstairs in your home -- and turn straw into gold. It's lonely, or at least other people tell you it must be. You aren't aware of feeling that way. If you were, you'd be doing something else with your life. However, when you start feeling agoraphobic, it's time to reach out.

Which is where a writers group comes in. I've been in such a group before. We met every week at a wonderfully welcoming restaurant in Chappaqua, NY (Le Jardin du Roi - great lobster salad) and read our stuff, shared war stories. But recently this idea got taken to a whole 'nother level. In September the Marmaduke Writing Factory Marmaduke was formed in Pleasantville, NY, just east of Chappaqua in Westchester County. Not only is there a group of about 10 writers, there is a designated space -- a craggy, rocky, edgy basement cave -- for established authors to go and write, think, and help each other. 

It's warm (there's a gas fire), there are desks, tables, armchairs, and copies of all our books on shelves to distract us. Very cozy and reassuring to literary spies coming in out of the cold of lonely endeavor.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Favorite Sports Books


I just wrote a sports book -- well, it's a history book, too -- so people assume I've read sports books all my life and know all about them. I don't. 

Up until about age 22 I hadn't read much of anything published before 1900. I was the only one in my high school honors English class in California to read and really like Tom Jones (1749). I lived in my own private time machine filled with afternoon tea, crumpets, crazy Russians, dissolute French people, and Anglo-Irish aristos hanging on to eccentric elegance in crumbling Georgian mansions beyond the Pale. Sports? That was what my father, brothers, sister, uncles, cousins did. That was time away from reading. Time spent out of the time machine, blinking in the bright sunshine of the present.

At some point my brother Buck turned me on to sports books. Buck is the natural athlete of an athletic family. We like to say he could ski beautifully on two-by-fours. Buck has the instinct for a good story. He also haunts the mailbox every week, waiting for Sports Illustrated to arrive. The family often hides it, just to see his reaction: "Anybody seen the new SI?" "Gee, no, Dad." Buck told me about Stolen Season (see below) and that started it all. I liked the immediacy of sports stories, their apparent simplicity. But of course, behind the game, the life, there was so much more. A good sports book was like a transparent three-dimensional structure (cubic tic tac toe?) that you played as you read. Dynamic.

So, below are 1) my idiosyncratic list of my favorite sports books; and 2) Sports Illustrated's Dick Friedman's gaming of the system of putting sports books into such lists. Add in your favorites. Tell me what I haven't read and should! And, thanks, Dick!

1) My Turn at Bat: The Story of My Life (Fireside Sports Classics) by Ted Williams
"Introducing the ingenious, addictive tool for judging everything under the sun: ENLIGHTENED BRACKETOLOGY, the new science that makes opinion a sport." And Dick Friedman has applied it to sports books. Click on THE ENLIGHTENED BRACKETOLOGIST title above and be sure to turn the page to see which book Dick ended up with as The Best (it wasn't on my list, but I'm going to read it right now). 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Tour: What Am I Asked Most Often?

Jim Thorpe at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, c. 1907

The usual book tour FAQs: Why did you write this book? What specifically led you to this subject? Did you like him? Was it true Thorpe couldn't hit a curve ball? How long did the book take to write?

I answer that it took me, give or take, about 7 years to write NATIVE AMERICAN SON. After some gasps and raised eyebrows I get this question: HOW DID YOU KEEP GOING FOR SO LONG?

On the subject of the writers -- and process -- of narrative nonfiction, Garrison Keillor said in early May 2007: "They are at work at computers, with books stacked on the floor, around them and on tables, and notes, legal pads, scribbles, index cards and Post-it notes and a whole great, beautiful chaos of material, and they are just trying to get the job done."

Amen. I kept that quote stuck on the cork board above my desk during the last couple of years of work on Thorpe. Next to it was the May 21, 2007 cover of The New Yorker, which shows a mathematician in a studio apartment, his back to an intricately messy blackboard, paper-littered floor, and desk, as he boils an egg for his breakfast (I only now realize, as I sequence these May 2007 dates, that the cover artist SempĂ© may have been inspired by Keillor's comment. Chronology rules). 

But that doesn't answer the question of how (and, implicitly, why) I -- or anybody -- could keep sitting down at that desk day after day. The answer is the subject himself: Jim Thorpe. Several authors had covered his glory years from 1907 - 1920, but no one had finished the life, told the whole story, right up to the current burial controversy. "The mother lode of subjects," said Ben Cheever of Thorpe. And the excavation of his life indeed felt like digging for something precious to our culture. Enough and more to keep me going.

The young man in the photograph above shaped modern sports. A century later, sports are the common, global passion of our time for boys and girls, men and women, young and old. How we got there is, in large part, the story of Jim Thorpe.