by Campbell Geeslin
Actress Lauren Bacall, 89, died August 12 in Manhattan. She was the author of two autobiographies, and is believed to have written them herself. One of her many strokes of luck was that her editor was Robert Gottlieb, probably the best in the business. Lauren Bacall, By Myself won a National Book Award in 1980. Now (1984) was the title of the second autobiography.
Her Page 1 obit in The New York Times ended with a quote: “I spent my childhood in New York, riding on subways and buses. And you know what you learn if you’re a New Yorker? The world doesn’t owe you a damn thing.”
NOVELLA DEFINED: Valerie Martin is the author of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, she wrote: “When asked about the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel, I invariably fall back on an analogy to painting: the delicate watercolor versus the large canvas in oil. But what of my favorite form, the novella, or ‘the long story,’ as students say these days? The novella requires quick, deft strokes, but allows for enough space and time to build up layers. Light may show through in dark areas; deep shadows may fall. At its best, the novella has a specific density all its own, engaging the reader with a bright surface and hidden depths.”
A TOLSTOY MAN: Dorothy Canfield Fisher was a bestselling literary figure in the early part of the 20th Century. She died in 1958. She wrote an introduction to a 1943 edition of Leo Tolstoy’s Stories and Legends.
Fisher said that Tolstoy’s greatest skill was “that his characters live. The reader does not think of them as inventions of an author.” A Tolstoy character is not like any other man in the ways he “lights a cigar, coughs, turns his head, drops his eyes. Having seen him in the flesh . . . [and knowing] what he really hopes, fears, longs for, sorrows for, he is a living person to you. What happens to him really happens.”
SOAPY PLOTS: Agatha Christie said, “The best time for planning a book is while you are washing the dishes.”
PRE-SELLING: Sandy Hall, 33, is the author of a first novel, a young-adult romance titled A Little Something Different. The book has already been sampled online by 9,000 readers. It got a five-hearts rating. The publisher, the Macmillan imprint Swoon Reads, which launched in September 2013, lets fans vote on manuscripts to choose which ones will be published. The first printing for Different was 100,000 copies. Pub date is August 26.
“The fans and the readers are more in touch with what can sell,” Jean Feiwel, publisher, told The New York Times. “They’re more at the pulse of these things than any of us can be.” Which is why they have a say in the final book jacket as well.
The Times noted: “The experiment reflects a new push by writers and publishers to build a fan base for books well before they are published—and sometimes before they are even written.”
THE MESSAGE: “There’s something comically circular about books that explicitly seek to instill a love of books,” wrote Wall Street Journal critic Meghan Cox Gurdon in arecent column. “A child can only get the memo by reading them, after all, and if he’s already reading them, then it seems hardly necessary to convince him of their virtue. Given the competition that children’s books face from other media, though, perhaps well-meaning grownups cannot be blamed for wanting to make the case for them emphatically—and early.”
QUITTER: Adrian Cardenas is a 26-year-old former major league baseball player who quit the Chicago Cubs to go to college and study to be a writer.
He told The New York Times, “As a baseball player, I could only be a baseball player. But that’s not who I am, and I couldn’t force it on myself.” Later he said, “I had made the majors. And I still wanted something else.”
Last fall Cardenas published an essay, “Why I Quit Major League Baseball,” on The New Yorker’s website. It took him six months to write.
The child of Cuban immigrants, now in his last year at New York University, Cardenas grew up admiring Miguel Angel Asturias and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He said he would most like to write about his family’s history.
TELLING STORIES: Does J. A. Jance use a gender-neutral nameon her 48 book jackets because she was told by a writing teacher and by her first husband that women were not to be authors? Who could blame her? The initials stand for Judith Ann.
Jance got a late start as a writer after a difficult early life. Since 1985, she has published 21 novels about Detective Beaumont, 18 more about Sheriff Joanna Brady and nine starring Ali Reynolds. There are also four stand-alone thrillers. Her current bestseller, Remains of Innocence, stars Joanna Brady.
In the autobiography Jance she posts on her Web page, she explained how her life’s experiences have provided material for her books where “everything—even the bad stuff–is usable.” Two of her books have an evil creative writing professor as a character.
One of Jance’s early jobs was teaching English on an Arizona Indian reservation. She said it was there that she learned “that the ancient, sacred charge of the storyteller is to beguile the time.”
THE BIG: Joseph Mitchell was the author of McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1938), a collection of stories he wrote for The New Yorker where he was on staff. His author’s note was brief:
“For this book, I have lengthened some [stories] with new information, cut a few, and torn others apart and put them together again. The people in a number of the stories are of the kind that many writers have recently got in the habit of referring to as ‘the little people.’ I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”
P.S.: A sample of how Mitchell’s prose made a character “big” might be in order. Here’s how the fictional McSorley began to become a giant: “Old John was quirky. He was normally affable but was subject to spells of unaccountable surliness during which he would refuse to answer when spoken to. He went bald in early manhood and began wearing scraggly, patriarchal sideburns before he was forty. Many photographs of him are in existence, and it is obvious that he had a lot of unassumed dignity.”
REVIEWED: Last week, Jojo Moyes and her book Me Before You (2012) had a full page ad in the Times “celebrating 52 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.” Moyes is the author of a dozen romance novels. She and her journalist husband and their three children live on a farm in Essex, England.
She has a sense of humor. She quoted a U.S. reviewer of Me Before You who said on Twitter that reading her book was “like watching the Hallmark channel for 24 hours with no breaks, with only jelly doughnuts to eat.”
POET AS REPORTER: Marguerite Young, a Greenwich Village eccentric, died in 1995 at the age of 87. She was a poet, novelist, biographer, critic and professor. Her best-known work was her only novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (1965). It and its creator have faded, but she remains a large presence on the Internet.
Young left behind many memorable quotes. Here’s one: “I get my characters from the newspapers and from biographies and medical histories and a thousand sources. I believe like [Robert] Browning, that the poet is a reporter. I can understand his writing, for instance, that beautiful long poem The Ring and the Book, which was based on a real murder in Rome. I do not believe in inventing characters.”
HAPPY MAN: A Jules Feiffer illustration from his new book, a graphic novel called Kill My Mother, appeared on the cover of Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.
In an editor’s note, Feiffer is quoted: “What makes me so happy is that I’m now in my 80s and I’ve gone back to what I love the most, more than anything in the world, from the age of 5. I’m redefining and reinterpreting it, but it’s the same form, it’s words and pictures. . . . So it takes me back to my childhood, which I hated, but this is the part of it I loved.”
IMPROVEMENT: British fantasy writer Terry Pratchett is the author of the Discworld series. His latest novel is Raising Steam. He was asked by The New York Times, “What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?”
Pratchett replied: “Probably the first draft of the first one I ever wrote, but I think I’ve got better since then.”