Along Publishers Row

by Campbell Geeslin

Are you ready for your close-up?

In a plot twist only a sadist could dream up, a new Italian TV show called Masterpiece pits aspiring novelists against one another reality-show style, with a payoff to the winner of a 100,000 first printing. If the program is a hit in Italy—where writers are revered but sales are pitiful—a U.S. version cannot be far behind.

Aspiring contestants submit a novel—almost 5,000 were sent in— and a dozen contestants are chosen for each of the show’s six episodes. Each round of 12 aspirants is whittled down to one: the scariest challenge is the live 30-minute free-write, as contestants’ tapped out words appear on a huge screen, typos and all. The final stage in each episode is a 59-second pitch of the book to the judges. A winner will be anointed in February.

“Italy is a country where people read less and less,” The New York Times quoted one of the judges as saying. “They’re publishing more books and selling fewer. The book is dying, and we must do everything we can to save it. Even a talent show.”

HE/SHE: The prolific William T. Vollman, winner of the National Book Award, has a new book out called The Book of Dolores.  The author, who has a wife and daughter, is a cross-dresser who calls him/herself Dolores— “a relatively young woman trapped in this fat, male body.”

“I’ve bought her a bunch of nice clothes,” Vollman told The New York Times, “but she’s not grateful. She’d get rid of me if she could.”

In his introduction to the book, Vollman explained, “Not only am I physically and emotionally attracted to women, I also wonder what being a woman would be like.”

The Times said, “He found being a woman, or attempting to appear as one, endlessly fascinating, even when it was unpleasant. ‘Mascara is an incredible hassle,’ he said.”

GETTING TO OZ: Billy Collins talked about making poems on NPR. His new, bestselling collection is Aimless Love.

He said, “It’s good not to make demands on the reader too early. But as the poem goes on, I want the journey of the poem to lead into some interesting places. I sort of like the idea of Dorothy—you know, the poem begins in Kansas and maybe ends in Oz….A lot of poems start in Oz, and I think that puts people off. You don’t want the flying monkeys in the first line.”

THE FAIREST: The Miami Book Fair International, the largest public literary event in the U.S., opened Sunday and runs for a week. This is its 30th year. Five hundred writers were expected to take part in signings and panel discussions.

BUSY MONTH: November is National Novel Writing Month. This year, more than 277,000 writers signed up to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

Erin Morgenstern’s bestselling The Night Circus (2012) was born of this annual exercise. Her advice, reported in The New York Times: “Don’t delete anything. Just keep writing. And if you don’t want to look at it, change the font to white.”

BIG: How many first novels get a $3 million advance?  How many 900-page novels get published? The book’s title is City on Fire. Knopf will publish it. The author is Garth Risk Halbert, 34.  He teaches at Sarah Lawrence. Early readers compared the author to Michael Chabon and Thomas Pynchon.

Chris Parris-Lamb, the author’s agent, told publishers who bid on the book that the plot revolves “around a central mystery: what exactly is going on behind the locked steel doors of a derelict townhouse in the East Village, and what might it have to do with the shooting in Central Park in the novel’s opening act?”

The New York Times reports that Scott Rudin bought film rights before publishing rights were auctioned.

SOURCE: A novel published in 1980, The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate, has had a long afterlife. In 1985, it was adapted for a film starring James Mason in 1985, and it was the inspiration for both the screenplay Julian Fellowes wrote for the film Gosford Park (2002) and the hit series he launched in 2010, Downton Abbey.

The novel is set in 1913 and is an account of one day at an English country house. Its themes, described in The Guardian, are: “friction between the classes, tradition vs. progress, and the imminent disintegration of an aristocratic world.”

The TV show has been green-lighted for a fifth season, but we all know that Downton Abbey is doomed. With no suspense, it must be the fancy decor that grabs so many viewers.

NEXT: Yankee star Derek Jeter is retiring into Jeter Publishing, his own imprint with Simon & Schuster. He plans to publish nonfiction (biographies, sports), children’s picture books, middle-grade fiction and books for early readers. The first titles will be released next year.

The New York Times reported that, at the announcement of his plans, Jeter wore jeans and a black blazer. His name sounds like that of a character in a children’s book, doesn’t it? Derek Jeter and the Magic Glove.

BEDLESS: Mormon authors, says The New York Times, tend to work in fantasy, science fiction, and children’s and young adult literature.

Author Rachel Ann Nunes, 47 and a Mormon who writes in the romance, paranormal, fantasy and young people’s genres, offered an explanation. Mormon theology, she said, makes otherworldly and escapist genres natural fits for church members. “We believe that God created a lot of different worlds.”

She added that Mormons write for young adults “because they don’t have to write the pages and pages of sex. They don’t want to spend a lot of time in the bedroom.”

TRIO: Lisa Scottoline’s current bestseller is Accused. She said that she was working as a lawyer when she began to read John Grisham and Scott Turow. She decided fiction needed a female lawyer too.

Scottoline was asked by The New York Times’ Gregory Cowles if she had “ever run across…her hypothetical partners in the firm of Grisham, Scottoline & Turow.  She said, “Our paths do cross. When authors are let out of their cages, they find each other.”  Asked if they talked about fiction or law, Scottoline said, “Honestly, we probably talk about our dogs.”

HELPFUL HINT: Poet Marianne Moore’s advice: “Write so that even cats and dogs can read.”

FOR SALE: The Bay Psalm Book (1640) is the first volume published in the American colonies. Only 11 copies are known to exist today. Two of them are owned by Old South Church in Boston, where Benjamin Franklin was baptized in 1706. One of the two will be auctioned on November 26. The New York Times reported that the “rather shoddily done” book was expected bring in $30 million.

UPBEAT: Ann Patchett’s latest book is This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, a collection of 22 essays.

The author wrote in an introduction:  “Many of the essays I’m proudest of were made from the things that were at hand—writing and love, work and loss. I may have roamed in my fiction, but this work tends to reflect a life lived close to home.”

Jonathan Yardley, in The Washington Post, wrote that most of the essays are uplifting and “pluck gently at the reader’s heart strings.”

METHOD: Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981) was a detective thriller and a blockbuster.  It was followed by more bestsellers. Smith’s latest book, out last week, is Tatiana. It is about a Moscow journalist whose reporting exposes her to danger.

For 18 years, Smith kept his Parkinson’s affliction a secret. He suffers from increasing shaking, slowness, and rigidity.  He can neither write script nor type.  He dictates to his wife Emily at the computer, changing words, correcting as he goes.

He told The New York Times that he didn’t mind the hallucinations which often come with Parkinson’s: “a black cat in his lap, whirlwinds spiraling from computer keys, a butler, a British military officer in full regalia.”

He said, “Having hallucinations for a fiction writer is redundant.”

DEATH: Doris Lessing, 94, died November 17 in London.  The 2007 Nobel Prize winner was a novelist, poet, playwright, biographer and short story writer.  The Golden Notebook, the sprawling, layered novel she published in 1962, was “a handbook for a whole generation,” said The New York Times. Considered a feminist by her admirers, it was a title that Lessing herself dismissed. A first-class contrarian and curmudgeon, she wrote in the first volume of her autobiography that “contemporary women scream or swoon at the sight of a penis they have not been introduced to, feel demeaned by a suggestive remark and send for a lawyer if a man pays them a compliment.”

Her page-long obit in the Times ended with the advice she gave younger writers when she found in 2008 that she could no longer write: “Don’t imagine you’ll have it forever. Use it while you’ve got it because it’ll go; it’s sliding away like water down a plug hole.”

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