Speak Up, I’m Eavesdropping!

I put it off as long as I could. Covered up, as people do; smiled and nodded. Finally I gave in and went to an audiologist.

She sat me in a booth and covered my head with large earphones. I could see her through the window, taking notes. If there was a period of silence, I watched her face for clues. It was a test, after all; I wanted to do well.

Afterward, we went over the results. “Mild hearing loss,” she said cheerfully. “Comes with age. You probably don’t even notice it except when you’re trying to have a conversation somewhere noisy.”

I didn’t mind so much about conversations. One can always shout. But noisy public places are prime eavesdropping territory, and for a writer, that matters terribly.

spyingWriters are nosy. I say this without apology, as nosiness is a requirement of the trade. For writers, as for actors, observation fuels invention. Our natural aspect is that of a fly on the wall, our patron saint Harriet the Spy.

As both human nature and language are the proper study of writers, eavesdropping is not a trivial pursuit. It’s a means of staying in touch with the ever-evolving vernacular and transcending our narrow personal circles. Hearing in general is so vital to writers that deaf writers are as rare on the ground as deaf musicians; yet some degree of hearing loss is almost inevitable with age. The first time I heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I thought someone had finally come up with a practical solution, cheaper than hearing aids, though limited in efficacy; there’s only so much you can lean in without landing in someone’s soup.

Eavesdropping has always been a rich and essential resource for me. I once spent 36 hours in a Brooklyn ER with my younger son, waiting for a bed to open up. Despite my anxiety, I spent that time doing what writers do: observing and listening. And before my son was even released, I knew that I’d found the perfect setting for a book I’d long wanted to write.

Café_de_FloreIt’s not just me. There’s a reason, apart from coffee, why so many writers work in cafés: they’re great places to eavesdrop. Buses, trains, waiting rooms and bleachers are all excellent resources, but my personal favorite was always the diner. The booths provide enough illusory privacy to encourage revealing conversation, enough real privacy to allow me to take notes. I’ve overheard break-ups and make-ups, quarrels and seductions, women dissecting men, men puzzling over women, doctors dishing about patients, cult recruiters exchanging tips. My favorite bit of found art was a conversation between a father and his young son.

“You know, Dad,” the child said thoughtfully, “some of the best things in life are things you can’t buy with money.”

“Yes, my son?”

“Like friends,” the boy said. “And a family that loves you. And picking your nose.”

So I didn’t take the audiologist’s diagnosis well. Any degree of hearing loss threatened me where I lived; think of a painter with cataracts. Everything else aside, hearing loss is associated with encroaching old age, which has its own particular terrors for writers.

Coming_out_of_the_closetIt’s not discussed in polite circles, age being the last remaining closet. But the truth is  that there are commercial penalties for WWO — Writing While Old. One is no longer in the running for “hot new writer.” There is, sadly but inevitably, a tipping point at which the books become sexier than the author. Older writers in search of a new agent or publishing house are at a disadvantage compared to young writers with decades of work ahead of them.

Nor is hearing the only sense affected by age. Others may decline as well; yet fiction is grounded in sensory detail. A permanent dimming of sensation can force the older writer to resort to life’s pale cousin, memory.

Physically, writing a novel is far more labor-intensive than most people think. To produce a manuscript of 100,000 words, the writer might easily type five times that many in drafts. Travel, too, becomes more onerous as writers age and commercial planes devolve into sardine cans–yet nothing is more nourishing for writers than travel.

For some aging writers, there is also anxiety. Writing doesn’t come with a pension. This startling realization dawns on most writers around the time their non-writer friends begin retiring with comfortable nest eggs. No doubt it should have occurred to them sooner, but they were too busy reveling in the perks of their profession: setting their own hours, working at home, and making a living doing what they loved.

Robert_Frost_NYWTS_5Fortunately, these drawbacks are offset by advantages that allow writers, unlike dancers or athletes, to continue playing at a high level even in old age. Experience is a great asset. One doesn’t need 20/20 vision to see into the human heart, the wellspring of all fiction. Older writers have lived, learned, read, suffered and survived more. “The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected,” said Robert Frost, who kept writing well into his 80s.

Older writers have skills, because the good ones never stop growing. They tend to value simplicity and clarity over ostentation. They put the story first. They’ve found their voice.

The extreme turbulence of youth is behind them. When productivity is the goal, it’s better to have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than to be currently under fire.

Technology gives us tools as well. Google Earth is no substitute for travel, but it sure is a great backup. And writers afflicted with arthritis can now resort to first-rate dictation software.

Bottom line, it’s not as if we have a choice. Writers write, whatever the circumstances. As for me, I’m making my adjustments. I thought of handing out cards — “Speak up, I’m eavesdropping”—but  decided that might have an inhibiting effect. Instead, I practice leaning in, though I find it’s not much needed. Recently in an airport departure lounge, I heard a young woman on a cell phone describe in excruciating detail the party she’d gone to the night before. She’d gotten wasted, she said, passed out, and woke the next morning in bed with a stranger. As the young woman strolled off, still spewing into her phone, a flash symposium broke out among the dozen or so stunned passengers within earshot.

I hate it that I don’t hear as well as I used to. These days, though, people talk more loudly and openly than ever before. It’s wonderful how things work out.

 

For more on the writing life, check out Writers, Lies and Filthy LucreOn Writing and Gardening; and The Orneriness of the Long-Distance Writer.

ON WRITING AND GARDENING

 

WinterIt’s been a cold, snowy winter in New York, good writing weather, but I’m ready for spring. Right now the view from my office window is nearly black and white: snow, bare branches against white sky, and the crenellated tips of fences. Soon the snow will melt, though, and in a month or so I’ll see the first pop of color in my rock garden, the irises and crocuses.

There’s a backstory to this garden. About 12 years ago, I got sick and had to undergo an unpleasant course of treatment. My husband and sons sought a way to show their support in a material way. What they came up with was a large rock garden, which they installed just outside my home office window, so I could enjoy it not only when I went outside but every time I sat down to work.

I’d never been a gardener. Gardening entails dirt, sweat, bugs and blisters, none of which I’m fond of. Often there are worms. Faith is required, gratification always delayed. And did I mention worms?

Nevertheless, I loved my rock garden, and after I recovered, I began to work on it. (I named it, too: the Barbara Rogan Memorial Garden, which no one but me thought was funny.) Little by little, I discovered that gardening metaphors were creeping into the way I thought and talked about fiction writing, and with good reason: they are similar endeavors in so many ways.

THE BIG PICTURE: In the beginning, I would go to my local nursery, buy whatever perennials caught my eye, and plant them anywhere I had room. The result was a disappointing hodgepodge. The flowers themselves were pretty, but the composition had no rhyme or reason. In a good garden, as in a good novel, all the parts exist to serve the whole. If they don’t, then no matter how pretty they are, they have to go.10486199_10152369477687865_5901926996832331028_n

WEEDING: However natural they may look, gardens are man-made compositions in which every element exists for a reason. The most beautiful specimen plant will go unseen if it’s surrounded by weeds.

Occasionally, in my students’ work, I come across a particularly well-crafted phrase or image or encapsulated thought, one that conveys with beautiful economy everything the scene is trying to achieve. These are the lines that “say it all,” if they’re allowed to do so without being smothered by surrounding verbiage. Editing showcases what is beautiful in our work by removing those elements that don’t contribute.

LABOR: Gardens repay sweat equity. So does writing; and writing novels in particular is more labor-intensive than most people would imagine. Before a book makes it to market, the writer may have produced a dozen drafts, each one better than the last.

Writing “effortless prose” takes huge effort. In fact, most things that seem effortless aren’t.

PATIENCE: Gardens aren’t built in a single season. Perennials often need a year or two of settling in before they bloom profusely. Much of the work goes on underground, out of sight.

Ideas also take time to germinate, and writers’ skills grow over time. Barbara Kingsolver said it took her 30 years to feel ready to tackle her masterpiece, The Poisonwood Bible. Novels take a long time to research, develop, write and edit. Like gardens, they can’t be rushed.

10274166_10152154759247865_6382013076439694242_nTIME: A garden is not a static installation; it changes as the growing season progresses. Things that were hidden spring to life: a patch of grassy stems transforms overnight into a carpet of red lilies. My rock garden looks entirely different in April than it does in August. In novels, too, time is a necessary dimension. A poem may immortalize a moment; but fiction is a vehicle for change, and change takes place over time.

THE SENSES: It took me a ridiculously long time to understand that gardens are not all visual. We’ve always had Russian Sage in the rock garden, and early on I took to crushing a leaf or two between my fingers to release its scent. Then one year we planted some Asiatic lilies. The following summer I walked outside one evening and was struck by the most alluring, intoxicating scent I’d ever encountered. For weeks those lilies perfumed the whole yard.

Fiction, too, infiltrates through the senses. Words are not things in themselves but symbols of things. Much of fiction’s work lies in making the abstract seem real, through the use of vivid, specific, selective description. Until a setting feels absolutely real, nothing that happens there will matter.

FAITH: at some point in every novel, the writer hits a snag. It might be a character who refuses to come into focus or a plot complication that’s gumming up the works; whatever it is, it feels dire. One of the advantages of having written a bunch of novels is that when I inevitably hit those snags, I know a solution will emerge in the course of writing. I have faith in the process.

Gardening, too, requires faith. We dig a hole, plant a bulb or seed, give it some water and trust it will grow. When snow blankets the garden and eradicates all signs of life, we trust that life and color will return.

spring

And so they will. Spring is just around the corner.

 

But just in case you need a good mystery to while away the time until it arrives, I hope you’ll consider A DANGEROUS FICTION, now available in Penguin paperback.

A DANGEROUS FICTION is out today!

DangerousFictionHC_jacket2It’s been a long time a’coming, friends, but A DANGEROUS FICTION is out at last!

In the past few days, there have been a bunch of wonderful reviews from bloggers and online book-review sites. I won’t cite them all right now, because I have to run, but there was one that particularly touched me and got to the heart of the book as I saw it and hoped it would be seen. That’s a review by blogger Lynne Perednia, and you can read it here if you like.

I promised you a surprise, and here it is: the prologue and first chapter of A DANGEROUS FICTION, available on line. If you like what you read, there’s a “buy” link on the site. You can also purchase the book from Amazon, B&N, Indiebound, or your favorite local bookstore.

Would love to post photos of readers with the book, so if you do get a copy, please send me a picture of you holding it, or your dog reading it, or whatever pose you like (Anthony Weiner-style poses excepted), and I’ll share it on the blog. You can reach me at barbararogan at msn dot com.

Happy  reading!

Happy Birthday, In Cold Ink!

It’s been just over a year since I started In Cold Ink. Like most anniversaries, this seems like a good time to reflect on the experience.  As you can see in my first post, I started out with some trepidation. I juggle a lot of jobs, and when I write I’m prone to obsession.  I worried that a blog, in my hands, would become just one more thing to neglect. And you can’t neglect a blog.  It’s like babysitting the neighbor’s kid, except that you can’t plop the blog down in front of the t.v. and expect it to amuse itself.

But I had things to say, as a writer but also as a longtime publishing professional. Before I gave it all up to write my own books,  I was an editor in a large New York publisher and a literary agent. My career path has given me a multifaceted perspective on the industry, and I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned and demystify an industry that from the outside can seem remote, strange in its ways and potentially hostile.  I also wanted to learn from others. Publishing is an industry in turmoil, on the cusp of profound change, and I wanted to explore that evolving world.

The results have exceeded my expectations. A surprising number of readers found their way to the blog: nearly 24,000 visitors last time I checked. Many left comments, and I’ve met some smart, interesting people through the blog. I’ve had the opportunity to interview some publishing pros, who’ve shared valuable insights and perspectives, including literary agent Gail Hochman,  Viking editor Tara Singh, and Editor-in-Chief of S&S, Marysue Rucci. Among the writers who’ve graced my doors are Diana Gabaldon, Tiffany Allee, Lorraine Bartlett and Mika Ashley-Hollinger.

dianagabaldonIt was interesting to see what posts attracted the most reads. The most popular by far is my two-part interview with bestselling author Diana Gabaldon, of Outlander fame…and I do mean fame. Her fans would follow her anywhere, and they followed her to my blog.  Second in popularity is my interview with literary agent Gail Hochman, also a two-parter, and very meaty in terms of how agents work, what they look for in new writers and what they avoid. Third is a post called “Ten Things Writers Should Expect from Literary Agents,” which I wrote because, while lots of writers are busy hunting for agents, few know what to expect once they nab one.

Looking over the list of posts also reminded me of some of my favorites, which I’ll mention just in case you missed them. “What if J.K. Rowling Had Self-Published?” is one. It’s my fullest answer to a question I hear frequently: “If I have a choice, am I better off seeking an agent who will then seek a publisher or self-publishing?”

Medicalert: The Scourge of Premature Submission” is a comical piece with a serious message. “Digging up Blurbs” shares some of the Dickensamazing blurbs my latest book received posthumously, from writers like Jane Austen, Hemingway, and Dickens. (I thought it was funny, anyway, even if one reader took it way too seriously and accused me of literary grave-robbing. )  “Too Much Body Language, She Said, Frowning” focues on the essential matter of craft in writing. Finally, this one has nothing to do with writing but is so worth reading: “A Former Slave Writes to His Master.

The last year has been a momentous one for me, with a new book on the way and five (five!!!) earlier books reissued. Happy events; but like other Happy Events, very time-consuming. If it weren’t for the support and engagement of this blog’s readers, I would never have been able to keep it going, but now the blog is a part of my life.  I look forward to an exciting year ahead, with lots more interviews with publishing insiders, writing advice, and reflections on our changing industry. I also look forward to sharing with you all the events surrounding the publication of my new novel, A DANGEROUS FICTION, coming out in less than a month with Viking Books… including all the fun stuff that goes on behind the scenes.

Thanks for reading.

CAFE NEVO Gets a New Life, and Other Amazing News

 

A brief note to all my readers: Lots of wonderful stuff has been happening these past months, including preparations for Viking’s publication of A DANGEROUS FICTION and, almost as exciting,  the reissuing of several previous books that have long been out of print. Right now we’re at the final stages of preparing CAFE NEVO  for its close-up. Set almost entirely in a Tel Aviv cafe called Nevo, this is my second novel and one that’s particularly close to my heart. It received heartwarming reviews when it came out. Kirkus called it “an inspired, passionate work of fiction…a near-magical novel,” and the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “A wonderful novel … vivid … unforgettable.” It also got amazing blurbs from two of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle and Alice Hoffman. Here’s the old cover, which I loved:

cafe nevo

I’ll post the new one as soon as it’s finalized—I’m very excited to show it off.

I’ve also started hearing from readers who’ve discovered some of my other novels, recently reissued as ebooks by Simon & Schuster. It’s a wonderful thing for writers that their backlists can so easily be kept in print; before the advent of ebooks and POD, that was a privilege enjoyed by only a few top-selling authors.  If you’ve discovered SUSPICION, ROWING IN EDEN, or HINDSIGHT, there’s nothing I enjoy more than hearing from readers.

Things are starting to heat up as the July pub date of A DANGEROUS FICTION approaches. I’ve offered to visit any book club that chooses to read that book, for which Viking has released a Readers Guide,  via skype or phone or even in person if it’s not too far. A rash offer, perhaps, but it’s still open. Contact Ben Petrone at “Bennett.Petrone at us.penguingroup dot com” if you’d like to schedule a visit–or let me know directly.

While I post here only once every week or ten days, I’m constantly updating my FB author page and chatting with folks there. Please like it to stay in touch. I’m also on Twitter as @RoganBarbara.

Thanks as always  for your support and interest. And now, back to writing.

 

Updated to add that CAFE NEVO is now out in paperback and ebook! You can read the first chapter on line; if you like what you read, follow the links to your favorite bookstore.

Location, Location, Location

 

The three most important things about property, agents will tell you, are location, location, and location. It occurred to me recently, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment, that this adage applies not only to real estate, but also to not-so-real estate: the settings of novels.

A few weeks ago, I was in Israel. I’d lived in Tel Aviv for twelve years, and had been back many times since, but this time we were there for the happiest of reasons: the marriage of our son. As the family was going over en masse, I had arranged for the rental of a large Tel Aviv apartment that, coincidentally, was five doors down from the house in which my husband and I lived when aforesaid son was born. It seemed an auspicious location, so I was disappointed to hear from the landlord, a week before our arrival, that the building was undergoing a major renovation with all the attendant noise and dust. He offered us an alternative: an apartment on tiny Byron Street—two doors down from my husband’s childhood home. Which just goes to show what Tel Aviv is like. Though it’s grown tremendously in the nearly thirty years since we left, at heart it retains its villagy feel. Every place evokes other places, other times; and people know each other. Instead of seven degrees of separation, it’s two or three, tops.

On the last night of our stay, we went out for a final stroll down Dizengoff. Most of the shops had changed hands since we’d lived there, but the mix of cafés, boutiques, bookstores, galleries, tourist shops and juice bars seemed roughly the same. I’d bought my wedding dress off the rack in one of those boutiques, gone now, and celebrated with a torte at Café  Royal,  the best pastry shop on Dizengoff, and  a haven for Tel Aviv’s “Yekkes”—German Jews. Just remembering that cake made my mouth water, but the Royal was gone, too, as was its grungy nemesis across the street, Café Kassit.

Grungy it may have been, but Kassit was the social nexus of Tel Aviv’s cultural and intellectual worlds, the café where all the writers, artists, publishers, playwrights and poets sat. In Steimatzky’s bookstore,  a few stores down, a person  could peruse new releases in the Hebrew literature section, then walk down to Kassit and find half the authors sitting there. If a missile had struck the cafe on a Friday afternoon, Israeli culture would have been pulverized.

But intellectuals weren’t the café’s only patrons.  Kassit had started as a workers’ lunch stand when Dizengoff was just being built, and you didn’t need a college degree to drink there. Politically it canted hard left and secular, but in that it was a microcosm of Tel Aviv as a whole. Where you sat was who you were, and bad behavior abounded. Sitting in Kassit on successive Friday afternoons, you could track as if by stop gap photography the progress of liaisons and feuds, flirtations and rivalries.

In those days I was a literary agent by day, writer by night. I worked too hard and made too little to spend much time in cafés, but when I did meet friends or clients outside, there was never a question about where. My second novel was conceived in Kassit, and set there.

I called it  “Café Nevo,” but any Tel Avivan would have recognized Kassit, home to a disparate set of lost souls whose lives converged within it. Café Nevo was both a haven and, like its Biblical namesake Mount Nevo, a vantage point onto the unattainable. Madeleine L’Engle called the book a fugue; which (leaving aside the wonder of Madeleine L’Engle calling it anything at all) struck me a smart and accurate analogy for the novel’s structure. My café was modeled on Kassit, not the thing itself, which could not have been encompassed in a novel; but it was also a tribute to an institution I’d thought would last forever. But Kassit was gone, long gone. It existed only in the memories of its patrons…and, in a way, between the pages of my novel, where its fractious customers are forever presided over the café’s  tyrannical waiter and secret owner, Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz.

I thought about this, as we strolled along Dizengoff on that Saturday night. The city was coming to life all around us, rousing from its long Shabbat nap. Stores were opening, cafés spilling out onto the pavement.  Bicycles darted between pedestrians, scooters between cars. It was time to eat. Between Frishman and Gordon, we stopped at a café and took an outdoor table. Inside, the restaurant looked shiny and metallic, with sleek European design.  The place felt familiar, though I was certain I’d never been here before.

My husband looked up and down the street. Then he beckoned the waitress, young enough to be our grandchild. “Wasn’t this Café Kassit?”

She looked blank. “Before my time, if it was. I’ll ask.” She was back in a moment with the answer. “It was Kassit, a long time ago. There’ve been two different owners since.”

We looked at each other. “Like homing pigeons,” my husband said.

 

Cafe Nevo was published in 1987 by Atheneum and reprinted a year later by Plume Books. I’m delighted to announce that it will soon be reissued as an ebook and in a new paperback edition. In the meantime, used copies are readily available through Abebooks.

Book Jackets

Yesterday I saw Viking’s jacket for A DANGEROUS FICTION, and I am over the moon. I think it’s stunning visually, and it perfectly captures both the book and its protagonist in a single image. Kudos to Viking’s wonderful team: my editor, Tara Singh, in-house designer, Alison Forner, and the artist Malika Favre, whose website is a small marvel. The book won’t be out until July 2013, but it feels very real now. Here is the cover:

What do you think? Would you pick it up if you saw it in a bookstore?

In a way, I’m like my grandmother Pauline. Every time Pauline was presented with a new grandchild or great-grandchild, she would exclaim that this is the most beautiful baby ever born. I’ve loved nearly all the jackets to my books. But I really do think this one is the most beautiful of all.

In publishing, cover art is the purview of marketing, which means that publishers, not writers, have the final say. Agents write cover approval into contracts, but vetoing a cover is a big deal and can lead to postponement of publication, an even bigger deal. So that right is rarely exercised.

Fortunately for me, I had some wonderful artists and designers for my covers. Having little or no visual imagination myself, I was delighted to have professional help; the jackets usually came as very pleasant surprises. The only one I ever found for myself was this painting by Israeli artist, which graces the cover of my novel CAFÉ NEVO.

 

Only once did I have a problem with the cover art for a novel, and in fact that was sort of a proxy dispute over the marketing of the book. I saw SAVING GRACE as a novel about corruption and the intersection of politics and family. My publisher saw it as a “women’s fiction.” Here are the covers, hard and soft, that  they came up with.

 

Not bad looking, especially the paperback, but the main problem was that they didn’t fit my concept of the book. They looked girly to me, an impression solidified by a letter that I got from one male reader, who said that he enjoyed the book greatly but had to take the jacket off before reading it on the subway. Men, we can sigh, but they are what they are and I’ve always wanted to attract readers of both sexes.

Viking’s cover for A DANGEROUS FICTION may also skew to women readers, though maybe not; I’d love to hear your thoughts on that point. But apart from being a thing of beauty in itself, this cover suits the book perfectly, and that makes me very happy.

Have you ever thought about what attracts you to a book jacket? If you didn’t already know the writer, what makes you stop and pick up a book?

 

The Best Part of Publishing

The problem with living in the golden age of anything is that you never know it at the time. It is what it is, that’s all. Only much later, when it’s over, do you realize in retrospect what an extraordinary period it was.

I thought about this the other day when I came across a piece in the New Yorker, “Editors and Publisher” by John McPhee: an affectionate appreciation of his two great New Yorker editors, William Shawn and Bob Gottlieb, and his publisher, Roger Straus Jr. It occurred to me that I had known and worked with two of these men, Bob Gottlieb when he was editor-in-chief of Knopf, and Roger Straus Jr. during his long tenure at the helm Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I was, at the time, a young literary agent based in Tel Aviv, representing Israeli writers abroad and American and European writers in Israel. I had moved from New York to Tel Aviv at the age of 22, worked for an Israeli publisher for a year, saw a niche into which I might fit, and at the ripe old age of 23 launched the Barbara Rogan Literary Agency.

The need was there, and within a year or two I was selling rights for publishers like Random House, Morrow, Knopf, Doubleday, Bantam, and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which is how I met Bob Gottlieb and Roger Straus Jr. To them, I must have looked like a kid who ought to be working in the mailroom. But they treated me with the utmost respect and collegiality, considered my submissions seriously, and talked up the books on their current lists. Knopf shared quarters with Random House and its sister imprints in a handsome, modern building on Third Avenue in midtown, and I would spend whole days meeting various people in those offices. At some point I would be ushered in to Mr. Gottlieb’s office. He was an august presence to me, head of one of the best imprints in the US, and editor of a long list of writers I greatly revered, including John LeCarre, John Cheever, V. S. Naipaul, and Edna O’Brien.  He never took me to lunch – he saw publishing lunches as a complete waste of time, and usually ate in his office – but he was unfailingly gracious and would spend an unhurried hour or so talking about books and publishing with a young agent. He never bought any of my Israeli writers, but I sold a great many of his in Israel, in part because they tended to be very good writers, but also because he spoke of them so compellingly that I was infused with a missionary-like zeal to go forth and find them a home in the Promised Land.

I had something closer to a friendship with Roger Straus Jr., one of publishing’s great characters. I saw him every time I came to New York, and once a year at Frankfurt. He was wonderful to look at, still handsome in his 60s, with a great mane of white hair swept back from his aristocratic forehead; but he was even better to listen to. When he talked about the latest book that had captured him, it was with the passionate enthusiasm of a boy, informed by decades of reading and publishing the best of world literature. I particularly remember him proselytizing about Nobel prize winner Elias Canetti, whose Crowds and Power Roger had published: one of the most important books ever written, he told me, which for once was not the usual publishing hype.

His language was famously profane. “Fucking” was his favorite adjective, which amused me no end. I wasn’t offended; this was the vernacular of my 20-something contemporaries, but it seemed wonderfully Bohemian coming from a man my grandfather’s age. His accent was unusual and reminded me of screwball comedies starring Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall. “Darling” he called everyone, but he pronounced it dahling; every new book on his list was mahvelous. As McPhee wrote, “his words wore spats.” It wasn’t an affectation; he’d been raised that way. His mother was a Guggenheim; his father’s family owned Macy’s. Playing superego to Roger’s id was his longtime assistant, the always elegant, always kind Peggy Miller. I loved going to their offices on Union Square, a warren-like space they’d outgrown long ago, crowded and dusty, with stacks of books everywhere. Random House’s offices were elegant, and I was always on my best behavior there, but visiting FSG felt like going home.

Roger was particularly loyal to his writers, whose backlists he kept in print regardless of economics. He liked to say he published writers, not books, and he must’ve said it often, because I remember hearing it, and so, in his memoir, does John McPhee. Roger meant it by way of contrast to his corporate competitors, bean-counters, he called them, and ruder names. He sought out great literature to translate, befriended the great publishers of Europe, and saw himself, I believe, as a leading citizen of the wider world of ideas. Certainly I saw him that way.

I was also a great admirer of Barney Rosset, head of Grove Press and the American publisher of T. H. Lawrence, Samuel Beckett and Henry Miller.  The first time we met was for lunch, not in one of the usual upscale publishing hangouts, but in a funky, blue-collar eatery near his office. Knowing of his epic court battles against censorship, which in the case of Henry Miller went all the way to the Supreme Court, I expected a fire-breathing dragon of a man; but Barney was a warm, bookish man with no interest in rehashing old battles. We started out talking enthusiastically about the Israeli writer whose rights he’d just acquired from me, and ended up commiserating with each other on the scarcity of translated fiction in the US and the provincialism of American publishing compared to European and Israeli.

Today there is, to put it delicately, a different publishing climate. Back when I was an agent, some important publishers, including FSG and Grove, were privately owned, and even those with corporate owners operated more or less autonomously. Now, after a generation of mergers, buyouts, and consolidations, we have the Big Six. I was representing Bantam in the ’70’s  when a marketing man was elevated to the post of publisher, instead of someone from the editorial side. The publishing world was shocked. “It’s the beginning of the end,” editors whispered. “It’s the writing on the wall,” others said. That sort of dichotomy hardly exists anymore, and to the extent that it does, the balance of power has shifted completely. In the past, publishers and editors like Roger Straus, Barney Rosset, and Bob Gottlieb decided what they wanted to publish and tasked their marketing departments with selling those books. Now, acquisitions are made by publishing boards that look hard at every prospect’s commercial viability.  There is less scope, it seems, for individuality and eccentricity, less loyalty to one’s writers, less time allowed for writers to find themselves and their markets.

And yet some things haven’t changed. I realized this over lunch some weeks ago with Tara Singh, my editor at Viking Penguin, who’s not much older than I was when I started my agency. She told me that what she loves most about her profession are the amazing people she works with. I always felt the same way. Though never been a particularly lucrative profession, publishing  has always drawn smart, well-read, intellectually curious people who are passionate about books. You can’t find much better company than that.

Writing Workshop

Just  a quick fyi for those who’ve asked to be kept informed. I’m teaching an online Writers Digest University course called “Focus on the Novel” that starts next week, on June 21st. It’s a good, hands-on workshop for writers who want some help launching a novel, or strengthening the foundations of one, if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphors. WDU allows me to keep the class size small, so I can give thought and attention to each participant’s work. After this course, I’ll be taking a break from teaching for 4-5 months while I work on the sequel to my upcoming novel, so if you’ve been thinking of taking a workshop, this might be the time.

And speaking of that upcoming novel, which Viking will publish early in 2013, I’m delighted to announce that it now has a title:  A DANGEROUS FICTION. What do you think?

 

A Writer, an Agent, and an Editor walked into a bar…

 

A writer, an agent, and an editor walked into a bar.

  “What’ll it be?” asked the bartender.

  “Scotch,” she said.

 

I’ll admit right up front that I had reservations about starting this blog. Reservations may  be putting it lightly.  Internal arguments raged throughout the various levels of my brain, infiltrating my unconscious, so that I dreamed about blogging when I could have been dreaming about Matt Damon or George Clooney. The Antiblogger within put up a hell of a fight. “What,” he demanded (he, yes, and with a slight Yiddish accent)  “there aren’t enough blogs in the world, you gotta go spit in the ocean?”

“Well, yes,” I said diffidently, “but I think I have something unique—“

“Unique, shmunique! You’re a writer! They all blog now, poor schumucks, they can’t help themselves. You’d have to pay them to stop.  You got time for this blogging?”

“I could make time.”

“Look at your desk! You got students. You got clients. You got proofs to read and books to write, not to mention the poor dogs wanting their walk.  What time?”

The Antiblogger had a point there, his strongest. I juggle a lot of jobs, and when I write I’m prone to obsession.  A blog, in my hands, could become just one more thing to neglect. And you can’t neglect a blog. They come with expectations, and arouse them. It’s like babysitting the neighbor’s kid, except that you can’t plop the blog down in front of the t.v. and expect it to amuse itself. Could I really make the commitment? Should I? The blogosphere is full of wonderfully informative blogs, many of which I read, by writers, literary agents, editors, book reviewers, marketing specialists, and passionate readers. It’s an interesting, contentious world, full of uncertainty and pitched battles between the gatekeepers and the gatecrashers, supporters of traditional publishing and self-publishing gurus. One could spend 24 hours a day reading good blogs and only skim the surface. Why, then, write another?

There is a reason, though, and it stems from who I am. A writer, first and foremost: author of eight novels, with the next one coming out in 2013 with Viking/Penguin. But like most writers, I’ve had many day jobs, and all of mine have been in publishing. I started straight out of college as a proofreader in one of the large New York publishers, and quickly graduated to editing. Then I moved to Israel (long story for another time) and, after a stint with an Israeli publisher, found a niche where my experience could be useful. I started a literary agency to facilitate the translation of foreign books into Hebrew and Israeli books into other languages. In industry parlance, I became a subagent for many of the major publishers and literary agents in the US and Europe.

The agency was successful. I had the pleasure of working with many of the leading publishers, editors, agents and authors in the world, and in the process I received a first-class education in the business of publishing.

But it wasn’t enough. Wonderful as that life was, seductive as it was, I needed to write my own stories.  I carved out time. It took two years, but my first novel sold to Doubleday in the US, Weidenfeld in England and Edanim in Israel.  For years I kept on writing and running the agency, but eventually, with a growing family, a demanding business and a burgeoning writing career, I had to choose between writing my own books and selling other people’s. I chose to write. Since then, my career as a writer has been informed by the many years I spent as an editor and agent.  I see the world from both sides now, and that unique perspective is what I hope to share in this blog.

So here’s the deal. I can’t post daily. Once a week is more my speed, but I promise I won’t waste your time. Publishing is an industry in turmoil, on the cusp of profound change, and I look forward to exploring that evolving world. Other posts will deal with the craft of writing, because the writer, teacher, editor and agent in me all agree on one unchanging truth: The best thing aspiring writers can do for themselves is to thoroughly learn their craft. In addition to providing my own take on the business and the craft of writing, I will rope in some publishing and writer friends for their insider savvy.

Writing is a lonely profession, and publishing a daunting one. I hope this blog will prove a helpful resource and spark some dialogue. I invite you to comment.  “If you build it, they will come,” Kevin Costner was told, but I’m a warier type. If you come, I will write it; and I’ll keep on writing till I run out of useful things to say.