by Campbell Geeslin

If there were steroids that made you a better writer, would you take them? That was the question asked by Michael Farris Smith who grew up playing baseball (without steroids) and he is the author of Rivers: A Novel.

He wrote in The New York Times: “I’m talking about a fat pill I could swallow once in the morning and once at night, and then sit back and reap the benefits of a stronger, faster, novel-writing me.”  Smith’s imagined pill will make your book a bestseller. “You will write sentences that will leap off the page and slap readers until they laugh or cry and then slap them again.”

There will be quality, much praised, and quantity. Your editor “will have learned . . . that there is no reason to even read [your manuscript]--just get it to the printer.”

Smith wound up his musings by guessing at possible side effects (thick fingers) and added: “So I will only stare at the pretend bottle of performance-enhancing drugs that sits at the edge of my desk.  Because part of the fun of being a writer is not knowing the ending before you get there.”

MORE: Long before steroids were discovered, Honoré de Balzac used coffee to keep his flame burning.  He drank more than 50 cups a day until caffeine poisoning contributed to his death at the age of 51.

A book entitled Mood Control (1980) by Gene Bylinsky told of an unnamed biochemist who had developed a “creativity pill.” The scientist claimed that tests showed that those who took the pill wrote better than whose who didn’t.

Whatever happened to that pill?

SWITCHING: Patti Davis has published nine books with eight publishing houses. Her father was President Ronald Reagan. She admitted in PW that she “had a reputation for writing about her family not favorably.” And she had plenty of not favorable things to say about the ways she was treated by major publishing houses.

Her new book, Till Human Voices Wake Us, a novel, is being self-published. Her reasoning: “I think we all want some autonomy in our careers. We don’t want to be dictated to.”

FOUND: One way of connecting with a lost relative may be to write a bestselling memoir. That is what happened to Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild.

Strayed told The New York Times Book Review (August 18) that she had, for years, searched for a half-sister without success.  Then the missing woman, who didn’t know Strayed’s name, “came upon my book by chance.”

When her half-sister started reading Wild, Strayed said, she “knew just enough about me and my siblings that she put it together. She read the rest of the book and then wrote to me. She was stunned. I was, too, and yet I always knew our paths would cross. Life is like that. There’s always more, always a reveal.”

SANDS OF TIME: Joseph Finder is a former U. S. intelligence officer who writes thrillers. A movie version of his bestselling Paranoia opened last week.

Finder told Writer’s Digest that he has an antique hourglass on his desk—a gift from his wife. He said, “For the sixty minutes the sands are running I can’t check e-mails or answer the phone. It’s a practical tool and a metaphor, reminding me that time is fleeting.”

THE REAL THING: The difference between reading a book made of paper and ink and an e-book is a meaningful one for Verlyn Klinkenborg of The New York Times. He wrote, “When I read a physical book, I remember the text and the book—its shape, jacket, heft and typography. When I read an e-book, I remember the text alone. The bookness of the book simply disappears, or rather it never really existed.”

Books on our shelves are constant reminders of what we have read. Notice them and they say that they are still here and ask to be remembered. When the iPad goes dark, the e-book has vanished.

Klinkenborg concluded: “There is a disproportionate magic in the way black marks on white paper—or their pixilated facsimiles—stir us into reverie and revise our consciousness.  Still, we require proof that it has happened. And that proof is what the books on my shelves continue to offer.”

ON READING: Geoff Dyer is a triple threat, a British journalist who also writes essays and novels. A collection of his nonfiction is entitled Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. The following is the last paragraph of an essay, “Readers’ Block.”

Dyer wrote, “Books played a crucial part in determining how I became what I am. That slightly ungainly phrase is derived from the subtitle of Ecce Homo, in which Nietzsche delivers the pronouncement with which anyone who has learned anything from books—from his, at any rate—will agree: ‘early in the morning, at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book—I call that vicious!’”

WINNER: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava started out as a self-published novel. It was picked up by the University of Chicago Press, and last week the author was awarded $25,000 from PEN for “a promising debut work of fiction.”

NEXT: Dave Eggers’ new novel, The Circle, is due out in October. The fictional Circle is the world’s most powerful Internet company.  Knopf’s press release says the book is “a novel of suspense raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.” Lots of stuff going on in this one.

DONATION, PLEASE: When a retail business begins to fail, customers may commiserate but rarely go to the mat to save it. Independent bookstores seem to prompt greater loyalty.

A New York Times Page 1 article last week reported, “Crowdfunding is sweeping through the bookstore business, the latest tactic for survival in a market that is dominated by Amazon, with its rock-bottom prices, and Barnes & Noble, with its dizzying in-store selection.”

A customer may feel that he is “helping a favorite cause and even preserving a civic treasure,” the Times said. Bookstores in San Francisco, Asheville, N.C.; Manhattan’s Flatiron district, and Chico, Calif., have all received donations to help them survive.

JUST SEMI-GREAT: Let Me Off at the Top! My Classy Life and Other Musings is the title of an autobiography by a fictional TV anchorman, Ron Burgundy. He was played by comic Will Ferrell in a movie, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. The book will be out on November 19. A movie sequel, Anchorman: The Legend Continues, opens in December.

Burgundy said in a statement published in The New York Times, “I don’t know if it’s the greatest autobiography ever written. I’m too close to the work.”



Jack Germond, 85, died August 14 in Charles Town, West Virginia. The political reporter and columnist, often seen on TV, was the author of a memoir: Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics (2002), Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad (2004), and a novel, A Small Story for Page 3, completed just before his death.

Pauline Maier, 75, died August 12 in Cambridge, Mass. The professor at MIT for 30 years was the author of The Old Revolutionaries: Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams (1980) and American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (1987). She stirred a controversy by writing that Jefferson was “the most overrated person in American history.”

Barbara Mertz, 85, died August 8 in Frederick, Md. An Egyptologist, she wrote 70 books, including many best-selling mysteries and thrillers, some under the pen names Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels. Her first two books, nonfiction under her own name, were Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt and Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt.

Lloyd Moss, 86, died August 3 in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. He was a radio host for a classical station and author of Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin (1995). (The illustrations by Marjorie Priceman won a Caldecott award.)  Moss also wrote two other children’s books: Our Marching Band (2001) and Music Is (2003). Rhymes in Zin! were plentiful: “The strings all soar, the reeds implore, the brasses roar with notes galore. It’s music that we all adore, it’s what we go to concerts for.”