2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Controlled Tangents

Editing. The art that separates the kids from the grownups. The skill a writer never feels she's mastered. The task that finds you in your pjs at 5 in the afternoon because you haven't left your desk since you got out of bed at 6 am.

My high school English teacher in California, a Berkeley grad, compared a  piece of expository writing to a piece of string. She drew a vertical line on the blackboard and said, " You see: there is a beginning and an end. A finite line." 

My editor at Knopf takes it one step further. If he drew that line, he would then add another one, curving around the first, that would end up looking like the rod of Asclepius. The second line, the snake, as it were, represents what he calls "controlled tangents." (I tried to explain this once to another writer and he mis-heard me and thought I said, "Controlled tantrums." We laughed 'til we cried.)

My editor is making a couple of important points. One: he does not want, as he put it, a narrative "clothesline" -- a string of facts hung along in a row to dry. That's boring for the reader. Two: especially in non-fiction, the writer has periodically to take little trips -- tangents -- off that narrative line to provide background and context.

But -- and this is the controlled part -- each tangent has also never to lose sight of the subject AND to return in due time to my high school teacher's finite line.  

It's a tricky momentum, as hard to capture as a slithery snake. And you can bet that when the editor says cut, he means trim those tangents in tight and hard.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Prime Real Estate


Barnes & Noble. Not-so-fondly known as the gorilla on the bus by New York publishers. "Very, very frustrating" is how one top non-fiction editor put it as recently as December. Way back when everybody was wondering how big the Kindle and ebook would be this Christmas.

In the fuzzy Blackberry photo here is my niece, Jamie Lee, in the Downtown Brooklyn B&N last Friday night, killing time before a movie. The first thing she saw coming in through the front door was my book. Front and center on the prime display table of new biographies. Yay!

An accident? Nope. B&N has to approve the book jacket before they even let the publisher bid for that space, maybe. The coveted curb appeal and placement is negotiated and paid for. It's not the personal whim of the store's manager.

So what happens now that Borders may go under and B&N just laid off some of its most respected buyers? In a matter of months the ebook may vaporize the enormous clout B&N has wielded over publishers and, by extension, authors.

What will take its place? Anything?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Learning From Mistakes

"Grandstand managers": Polo Grounds, NYC, 1913 World Series: NY Gaints v. Philadelphia Athletics
This is what they used to call an erratum, that little slip of paper with a correction, added to a book after it came back from the printer. The second printing of NATIVE AMERICAN SON came too quickly to get this in, but it will make it into the third!

Page 180, second paragraph, corrected, will now read like this:  
Three days before the [1913] World Series began between the Giants and the [Philadelphia] Athletics, in the second of a two-game series against the Phillies, McGraw started Jim in center field and put him at the top of the batting order. "The minute [Jim] stepped from the dugout," said one reporter, the infamous New York "grandstand managers" started their jeers: "Pick a bat that hasn't a hole in it!" Jim struck out twice and hit two weak grounders at Grover Cleveland Alexander, a great pitcher. "Each time Thorpe came to bat," the reporter continued, "there was a repetition if the grim humor in the grandstand, and each time he started back for the bench, there followed the jeers, and by the facial expression and actions, Thorpe showed how keenly it hurt him." 

My error? From a tattered, old 1913 news clip headlined "Thorpe Tragic Figure in Series," I'd conflated the two-game "series" described above with the World Series. Tip off: Grover Cleveland Alexander never pitched for the Athletics, nor did Thorpe play in the 1913 World Series. Giants manager McGraw barely let him hit at all during this, Thorpe's first, season.

I knew all that stuff, but in a last-minute edit, after all my kind, patient baseball pals had reviewed the text, I slipped it in. It seemed too sad to be true that Thorpe was jeered at a World Series. And, it was. 

Life lesson: triple-check everything and then triple-check it again. Especially when you're writing about sports, where there are scores, statistics, and passionate fans. Thank you, an alert reader in Rhode Island!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Recent Morning Show Appearance

 I had a great time chatting about Thorpe on VIRGINIA THIS MORNING in Richmond, Virginia. Hosts Greg McQuade and Cheryl Miller were fun to talk to. They had each read the book, liked it a lot, wanted me to sign their copies, and asked great questions.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Couldn't Hit A Curve Ball

1916 Gimbels (M101-5) Jim Thorpe #176 Baseball Card
Jim Thorpe, 1916 NY Giants
"He couldn't hit a curve ball." So said John McGraw, Jim's domineering and pennant-winning manager at the New York Giants baseball team. The judgment stuck, clinging to Jim's story and reputation like a sharp old barnacle.

Jim came to the Manhattan team in the wake of one of the biggest sports scandals of the century (The 2011 World Almanac, almost 100 years after the fact, still puts it at the top of the list of worst sports scandals): Seven months after winning, with huge margins, both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, and playing a 1912 football season for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School team that would have won him, Sports Illustrated would later suggest, the Heisman Trophy had it existed back then, Jim was summarily stripped by the AAU of his two gold medals and his amateur status. 

Why? He had played professional baseball with minor league teams in 1909 and 1910. So? "Simon pure" amateurism was the sports ideal of an elite determined to exclude, in effect, the lower classes. Anyone who had ever accepted payment of any kind for playing sports was deemed a pariah and demoted to the grubby rank of professional.

Pre-Babe Ruth, the Giants were the Yankees of their day. Jim accepted McGraw's lucrative offer in January 1913. Baseball was his weakest sport, but that didn't matter. He was a huge gate attraction.

You can read in detail about the fraught McGraw - Jim relationship in NATIVE AMERICAN SON. What is important here is that Jim had to learn to play baseball, the sport that can frustrate even the finest athletes in other sports.

By the summer of 1919, sold by McGraw to the Boston Braves because "he couldn't hit a curve ball," Jim was the leading batter of the National League. At one point that summer, he was hitting better (.375) than Ty Cobb in the American League (.350). He could now hit anything, from left- (.333) and right-handed (.316) pitchers.

An injury took him out of the running in August, but for the rest of his life he would say of that 1919 season, when he batted .327: "I must have hit a few curves."

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bye Bye Old Year, Hello New


Well, that was 2010. 

The last night of it was spent at a party at the neighbor's house down the road here in rural Virginia. The clock was set two hours back so that we could celebrate midnight at 10 p.m. (the tradition started when the children in the group were small; now they're in high school, but we still do it.) Stouffer's lasagne cooking away in the oven. Tons of corn chips. A sausage dip in the slow cooker that, we all agreed, looked bad but tasted good. Cheap red wine. Beer.

This year I went to the Dollar Store and bought out their selection of Mardi Gras-style beads. Everybody, even the dogs, got slung with green, red, and blue strands. The cats were upstairs, as usual, under the beds.

The day before, the few other nearby neighbors, who are either not invited or choose, always, not to come, are warned that there will be fireworks at 10 on New Year's Eve. "The cheesiest fireworks display ever," as it's fondly called, by us, anyway. The guys are really into the fireworks and look forward to them all year. The usual supplier was sick, so a new source had to be found -- a process meticulously recounted to a rapt audience of us. 

A scaffold is set up in the road (it's a cul de sac) with Roman candles, sparklers, tubes, mines, shells -- the works -- lined up in a row on the wooden platform. One year the Roman candles got out of hand and the men had to run for cover -- the incident now a beloved part of our oral history. The women and children gather several feet away, ready to scream with feigned fear and real delight as the crackles, pops, and sizzles begin and the men jump around waving their barbecue lighters.

Last night the sky was crystal clear -- Orion is big right now -- and the air not too cold. At the stroke of "midnight," the first round of firecrackers was lighted. Wow! Ooooh! Wow, again! Yay! Then, like big professional fireworks, just when we spectators thought it was all over, came the grande finale. OMG! Fabulous.

Welcome, 2011.