Along Publishers Row

by Campbell Geeslin

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a letter to a friend in 1881. The author was happy about a book he was working on. “If this don’t fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day. Will you be surprised to learn that it is about buccaneers. . . That it’s all about a map, and a treasure, and a mutiny, and a derelict ship . . . and a seacook with one leg, and a sea-song with the chorus ‘Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum’ (at the third Ho you heave at the capstan bars), which is a real buccaneer’s song, only known to the crew of the late Captain Flint.”

Stevenson admitted: “It’s awful fun, boys’ stories; you just indulge the pleasure of your heart, that’s all.” The quotes about the creation of Treasure Island (1883) are courtesy of The Wall Street Journal.

ADVICE: It’s graduation time and speeches to mark the occasion are flowering. One, made last year by short story writer George Saunders at Syracuse University, has just been published as a book. It is a bestseller entitled Congratulations, by the Way. Saunders is on the faculty at Syracuse.

His advice to graduates: “Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings out the most loving, generous and unafraid version of you—and go after those things as if nothing else matters.”

Gregory Cowles, in The New York Times Book Review May 18, commented that the book is “slender as a psalm, and as heavy.”

GAY’S WAY: Gay Talese is the author of a dozen books and the subject of an article in the June Vanity Fair.

The way he works: he writes early drafts in pencil on a yellow legal pad. “When he has completed three or four paragraphs to his satisfaction, he types them up on his 1980 IBM electric typewriter (an upgrade from his 1959 Olivetti portable manual typewriter) and then creates a final draft on an old Power Macintosh G3.” The results (like Honor Thy Father, 1971) prove to be bestsellers.

WRITING ROOM: Milan novelist Benedetta Cibrario wrote an article for the Style section of The New York Times. Her books include Rossovermiglio and Lo Scurnuso.

She said, “Years ago, I visited Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, England, and left feeling I had tapped into the source of her prose. The well-worn floors and the walls, papered in delicate Regency designs, represented a kind of narrative architecture. The small table on which she wrote each day, having completed her domestic chores, spoke of her patience. The meticulous embroidery on a fine cotton scarf made me think of her hands and eyes—the intensity of her focus. Since that visit, I have come to realize that writers’ spaces reflect our work, and vice versa.

”When I begin a novel, I rarely have a clear idea of where it will take me, but my fascination with the passing of time and objects that convey a sense of history inevitably makes its way onto the page.”

NO WEB: The Guardian asked a couple of questions recently: “Is the Internet an enemy of writers’ creativity? Are online distractions killing your creative flow?”

George R. R. Martin, the prolific fantasy novelist, told Conan O’Brien on TV, “I have a secret weapon.” He does his writing on an old computer that is not connected to the Internet. He said, “It does everything I want a word processing program to do, and it doesn’t do anything else.”

One reader responded that he had found himself easily distracted by nonsense, so “I just unplug my router when working.”

BARRINGTON’S BACK: Carnal Curiosity is Stuart Woods’s 29th novel about a lawyer named Stone Barrington. It promptly hit the bestseller list. One approving fan’s reaction on the Web:  “lots of sex, sex, sex!”

BEING SNUG: “We like in our writers the qualities we don’t especially want in our friends—keen antennae for hypocrisy, a long memory for mistakes, a touch of cruelty,” wrote Sam Sacks in his Wall Street Journal column. “Part of the pleasure of reading Muriel Spark or Saki or Patricia Highsmith is that, as their characters are splayed out and vivisected on the page, we sit snug in our armchairs.”

WHAT’S KNOWN: James Wood writes about books in The New Yorker. In the May 19 issue, he began an essay with: “There is a difference between knowingness and knowledge, but what is it?  Knowingness comes after knowledge; it is only the echo of its source, and it is proud to be the echo. One of the liberties of our connected age is that we can be almost infinitely knowing, consoling our lack of true knowledge with an easy cynicism of acquisition. It is cheaply glorious to be able to discover almost any fact about the world on the machine I am using to write this review: I experience that liberty as the reward it is, and also as a punishment; as both a gift of the digital world and a judgment on my scant acquaintance with the actual world.”

Wood’s most recent book is The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays.

FICTIONAL FAMILY: Meghan Cox Gurdon writes a Wall Street Journal column about children’s books. She reviewed Erin McCahan’s Y-A novel, Love and Other Foreign Words. The story is narrated by a fictional 15-year-old girl.

Gurdon wrote: “Whether happy families are all truly alike, they can certainly have a similar effect when they appear in a novel. The reader can’t help longing to join them.”

HIT IN HOLLYWOOD: The longtime president and co-founder of Pixar Animation Studio, Ed Catmull, is the author of Creativity Inc., a book which “you will see . . . on almost every desk” in Hollywood. It’s a nonfiction bestseller.

Brooks Barnes in The New York Times, wrote that the book “outlines how to manage a business that runs on imagination. Among [Catmull’s] tips: People at all levels of a creative company should be allowed to speak to each other without going through hierarchical channels.”

“”Hollywood is either about to get a lot better at delivering hits,” Barnes said, “or a lot of people are going to be using Mr. Catmull to explain why failing is all in a day’s work.”

ABOUT TV: A book about television series, such as Seinfield and My So-Called Life, will be co-written by two TV critics, Alan Sepinwall of Hit Fix.com and Matt Zoller Seltz of New York magazine. Publication is planned for 2016.

BORROWED AND BLUE: Published last month and quickly on the bestseller lists was Christopher Moore’s The Serpent of Venice. It is described in reviews as hilarious and bawdy, with borrowings from Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe.

Amazon claimed on the Internet that the book is “a work of art” with two-color printing on creamy paper. The end papers are an antique-toned map of Venice.  “Gold foil embellishes the title and illustration detail.”

Guess you won’t get that on the e-book version.

BIG BUY: The University of Texas paid $2 million for Ian McEwan’s archives. These include drafts of his later novels, material from his childhood, letters, and his e-mail correspondence from 1997. One of the Brit’s bestselling titles was Atonement.

DEATH-ROW FANTASY: Rene Denfeld is the author of a novel, The Enchanted. Her home is in Portland, Ore., where she lived on the streets at 15, sang with punk bands, worked as a bartender and journalist. She is the mother of three children she adopted from foster care.

Her day job is interviewing prisoners on death row, trying to help them by finding relatives or friends. Denfeld was interviewed by Reuters and the article appeared on Yahoo News.

The narrator of Enchanted is a prisoner who creates a fantasy life. “A lot of people are illiterate when they go in [prison],” Denfeld told Reuters. “It’s not until they start learning to read [that] they realize they had better choices, there were other possibilities, other lives they could have lived. They discover all this too late.”

QUESTION: Novelist Mohsin Hamid was asked by The New York Times Book Review what he thought the benefits and drawbacks of success were for writers.

“It’s a radical thought,” Hamid said, “but I wonder whether in some way we professional fiction writers might be better off if, like poets of old, we were to make nothing from our writing and had to earn our living elsewhere. Radical or not, it’s how most writers actually live today, working their day jobs, and writing—unpaid, alone, with passion—at night.”

Hamid’s most recent book, out in March, was How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel.

A BOUQUET: Let’s wind up with a seasonal treat from William Shakespeare—the familiar first four lines of his Sonnet XVIII, circa 1609:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate;

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

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