Nancy Isenberg, author of WHITE TRASH, chats with Amy about her in depth analysis of the history of poor whites in America. Learn about the book here:
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable? I write during the day, print out whatever I am working on in the evening and bicycle with those pages to my favorite Japanese restaurant where I alternate between a blue pencil and chopsticks. This transfer, from screen to paper, from solitary desk to public sushi counter, gives me the sense that I’m examining my writing with ‘fresh eyes.’ It is, of course, only an illusion that Tim Sultan, the writer, and Tim Sultan, the reader, are not one and the same but it’s an illusion that works for me. Needless to say, I am a very popular customer at this restaurant. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Some people walk their dogs before breakfast, I walk my coffee. Each morning year-round I put on a minimal ensemble—sneakers, a t-shirt or sweater, and shorts. Never trousers as being underdressed for the weather is of the essence. It’s circulation–of blood, of thoughts, of images–I’m after, not snug comfort. I descend from hearty stock that encouraged this sort of thing. I walk the half-mile to my favorite coffee shop, order a cup to go and return home through the park. I call this surveying. I survey the exercisers, the pigeon feeders, the dogs racing around with clouds of breath coming from their snouts—and I survey my life, my writing, perhaps chewing on an editorial conundrum that had me in a jam the previous day. Whatever my mind alights on. If I’m lucky, I return home with a new turn of phrase, a fresh idea, a missing word, and I take it from there. I can affirm that waking up the mind in this manner beats turning on a screen in the morning. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? “Look forward and don’t be afraid.” I found this single sentence in a notebook that belonged to my mother. She had written it to herself not long before she passed away. The page leans against the wall by my desk where I regard that message and reinterpret its meaning every day. For writing, for life. Describe your writing style in 5 words or less. Thoughtful, digressive, occasionally extravagant, empathetic What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you? Disappearances by Howard Frank Mosher I have read it more than any other book. I have read to myself, to friends, and at my father’s memorial service. I admire it like no other. For its naturalistic prose coupled with a grand imagination. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez had been a Vermonter… Between Meals by A.J. Liebling I think it was John Irving who once said that he always carries on him ‘a flood book.’ Something to read if he finds himself unexpectedly marooned. This is my flood book and more often than not, I stick a copy in my jacket as I’m going out the door in the evening. It’s the sort of book one can open to any page and begin reading without feeling one has missed a beat. Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal A short masterpiece about an underground visionary with the tenderest of souls. Elegiac without being melancholy, profound without being solemn. Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter Sometimes one admires most the other. Salter’s style here is terse, understated, disciplined. His characters share the world with Edward Hopper’s subjects. We are ultimately on our own. Learn more about Sunny’s Nights here.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? Given the nature of historical fiction, the first thing I do is a lot of research. And that usually begins with reading old newspapers. Thanks to digitization, that’s much easier to do than it once was. Alas, also thanks to digitization, we’re creating far fewer new newspapers than before. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I started to write a political novel (about the impeachment of a president) when I was thirteen or fourteen. By the time I got halfway through college, writing had become my serious ambition, but my own timidity drew me toward teaching and, for a while, the publication of constrained little pieces in academic journals. The best thing that happened to me early on, at the beginning of the 1980s, was becoming a semi-regular contributor to William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review. The 800-word book reviews I wrote for the magazine usually earned me about $150 or $200; more importantly, they forced my writing toward a greater concision and liveliness, a more personal, honest voice. All of that helped me to write A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries (1984), an unexpected success (my picture in Time magazine!) that gave me the real beginnings of my career. Describe your writing style in five words or less. Fact-filled, parenthetical; judgmental; amused. Do you ever base characters off people you know? Why or why not? A historical novelist really has to use real-life figures in his work. A couple of times I’ve included, under their own names, people I’ve actually known: E. Howard Hunt in Watergate, and my late friend Christopher Hitchens in Finale. And yes, I’ve also refracted and disguised and renamed real people in some of my other novels. I mention Mary McCarthy below; she appears as the writer Elizabeth Wheatley in my novel Aurora 7. And Bandbox (2004), my comedy about the magazine business, is really a roman à clef that sprang from my time at Condé Nast. A writer’s whole life and acquaintance are always a part of his material. In fact, I would go so far as to say that no character in a novel has ever been made from whole cloth. What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound effect on you? At about ten or eleven I was a great devotee of Howard Pyle’s novel about knighthood, Men of Iron, although my real pleasure-reading in elementary school came from one publisher’s American-biography series. Every one of these books was, I seem to remember, 192 pages long, whether the subject was George Washington or Molly Pitcher. During junior high school I got caught up in the great excitement over the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Buying hardback books was beyond my allowance, and I couldn’t wait for a public library copy, so I secured the book (was it for fifteen cents a day?) from the little “rental library” on the main street of my town. When my ninth-grade English teacher saw me with an early copy, she was jealous. Mary McCarthy’s volume of essays, On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946-1961, is the book that really made me want to become a writer. I read it in 1971, at college, and the book’s combination of literary criticism, political essays, memoir and travel writing suggested the whole range of genres I might try myself. I read all of McCarthy’s fiction, too. She became the subject of my undergraduate thesis, then later a friend and mentor. To this day I aspire to the clarity and force of her style, even though my own is nothing like hers.
We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing! After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write? Research everything. I’m a nonfiction writer so after conceiving a chapter, I like to have every pertinent date and quote at hand so that there is no distraction—no source material to obtain— from staying in the flow. Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking? Many of my favorite authors were alcoholics, but I’ve always thrived on healthier forms of prewriting stimulation—bike riding, running, yoga. Having a clear head and listening to music puts me in the writing mood as does being just a little tired. Maybe it was because I was writing about ghosts and magic, but I always felt most imaginative at night. And I usually do my best work at home. Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author? I attended Graduate Film School at NYU and anticipated a career in film production. Later I did have a book idea and queried a literary agent, Tina Bennett, on a proposal related to astrology, which I was practicing professionally while trying to get my film projects off the ground. In the course of our communication, I also mentioned a screenplay I was developing about Houdini’s rivalry with a controversial Jazz age medium. She was thrilled with that story, which became the basis for The Witch of Lime Street, my first book. What’s the best piece of advice you have received? “Every word should mean something.” What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself? Any serious writer should read everything, particularly by those authors with whom you identify, but William Faulkner once said of Shelby Foote that he only became a successful writer when he stopped trying to be Faulkner and started being Foote. Read more about The Witch of Lime Street here.
Today, we are commemorating The Battle of Bull Run (First), which occurred on July 21, 1861. Read an excerpt from Our Man in Charleston: Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey: On the morning of July 21, 1861, William Howard Russell [editor’s note: an Irish journalist with The Times] was running late for a battle. Confederate troops under Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard, whom he knew from Charleston, and the Union Army under Gen. Irvin McDowell, whom he’d met several times, were now massed around a little rivulet called Bull Run near the Manassas Gap Railroad junction. Everybody in Washington seemed to think this first major battle would be a Northern victory. It might be the beginning of serious fighting. It might be the end of it. Whatever happened, there was no question, Russell had to be there to see it. Since Russell’s return from the South to the Federal capital, nothing had gone right for him. While he’d been away, and despite his reams of reporting, Delane and the other editors of the Times of London had taken a stand of clear sympathy with the secessionists. They reflected the interests of an elite with commercial concerns about cotton and contempt for the American notion of a republic. They also embraced the idea that, because Lincoln and Seward insisted this war was not about freeing the slaves, then truly that was the case. And for the masses, there was the appeal of the Southerners as underdogs struggling against the subjugation of Washington. The Times editors had become just the apostles of the fait accompli that Seward had feared. So even though the paper still ran Russell’s articles about the inadequacies of the Southern military position, the arrogance of King Cotton, and the monstrosity of slavery, its editorials were such that Russell found the Times “assailed on all sides as a Secession organ, favorable to the rebels and exceedingly hostile to the Federal government and the cause of the Union.” The net result for its correspondent was that he no longer had the kind of access to the Union military that he’d wanted and expected. Seward would still see him, but War Department passes were hard to come by, and on the eve of combat no one would give him the countersign so he could get through checkpoints to see the battle begin at dawn. Not until midday did Russell finally get close enough to the fighting to hear “the thudding noise, like taps with a gentle hand upon a muffled drum” of artillery in action. Among congressmen and other dignitaries, many of them accompanied by their wives, he watched from atop a hill above Centreville as distant wisps of smoke marked the opposing lines. He ate a sandwich. He drank some Bordeaux he’d packed in his case. By the time he drew closer to the fighting, the Union forces were pulling back; then, suddenly, they were fleeing in a rout so complete that he could hardly believe his eyes. Russell was on a borrowed nag threading his way toward the action when he heard loud shouts ahead of him and saw several wagons coming from the direction of the battlefield. The drivers were trying to force their way past the ammunition carts coming up the narrow road. A thick cloud of dust rose behind them. Men were running beside the carts, between them. “Every moment the crowd increased, drivers and men cried out with the most vehement gestures, ‘Turn back! Turn back! We are whipped.’ They seized the heads of the horses and swore at the opposing drivers.” A breathless officer with an empty scabbard dangling by his side got wedged for a second between a wagon and Russell’s horse. “What is the matter, sir?” Russell asked. “What is all this about? “Why, it means we are pretty badly whipped,” said the officer, “and that’s the truth.” Then he scrambled away. The heat, the uproar, and the dust were “beyond description,” Russell wrote afterward. And it all got worse when some cavalry soldiers, flourishing their sabers, tried to force their way through the mob, shouting, “Make way for the general!” Russell had made it to a white house where two field guns were positioned, when suddenly troops came pouring out of the nearby forest. The gunners were about to blast away when an officer or a sergeant shouted, “Stop! Stop! They are our own men.” In a few minutes a whole battalion had run past in utter disorder. “We are pursued by their cavalry,” one told Russell. “They have cut us all to pieces.” After a while there was nothing the world’s greatest war correspondent could do but fall in with the tide of men fleeing the fighting. In all his battles, he had never seen anything like this: “Infantry soldiers on mules and draught horses, with the harness clinging to their heels, as much frightened as their riders; Negro servants on their masters’ chargers; ambulances crowded with unwounded soldiers; wagons swarming with men who threw out the contents in the road to make room; grinding through a shouting, screaming mass of men on foot, who were literally yelling with rage at every halt and shrieking out, ‘Here are the cavalry! Will you get on?’” They talked “prodigious nonsense,” Russell said, “describing batteries tier over tier, and ambuscades, and blood running knee-deep.” As he rode through the crowd, men grabbed at Russell’s stirrups and saddle. He kept telling them over and over again not to be in such a hurry. “There’s no enemy to pursue you. All the cavalry in the world could not get at you.” But, as he soon realized, he “might as well have talked to the stones.” It was a long way back to Washington that day. But after several brushes with violent deserters, drunken soldiers, and more panic-stricken officers, Russell made his way in the moonlight to the Long Bridge across the Potomac and into the capital. He told anyone who asked him that the Union commander would regroup and resume the battle the next morning. But when he awoke in his boardinghouse on Pennsylvania Avenue, he found the city full of uniformed rabble. “The great Army of the Potomac,” he wrote, “is in the streets of Washington instead of on its way to Richmond.” The Federal capital was essentially defenseless. “The inmates of the White House are in a state of the utmost trepidation,” Russell wrote, “and Mr. Lincoln, who sat in the telegraph operator’s room with General Scott and Mr. Seward, listening to the dispatches as they arrived from the scene of the action, left in despair when the fatal words tripped from the needle and the defeat was already revealed to him.” For the South, “here is a golden opportunity,” said Russell. “If the Confederates do not grasp that which will never come again on such terms, it stamps them with mediocrity.” But the rebels stayed where they were, and the fact that they did not march on Washington suggested this would be a long war. As Russell studied the city, its politicians, and its dispositions in the aftermath of the battle, he did not agree with “many who think the contest is now over.” He figured the Northerners had learned a lesson about “the nature of the conflict on which they have entered” and would be roused to action. But when the Times ran Russell’s article on the battle, his balanced judgment about the lessons learned got no play. The whole effect of his account of the rout was to reinforce the editors’ image of a South that not only would fight, but that could fight better than the North and, therefore, should soon be free of it. Read more about the American Civil War and the untold story of the Robert Bunch: an unlikely Englishman who hated the slave trade and whose actions helped determine the fate of our nation in Our Man in Charleston. “A perfect book about an imperfect spy.” —Joan Didion
Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best. “If you have to recommend just one bourbon to me….” Naturally, this was my first question for Reid Mitenbuler, author of Bourbon Empire. There are some perks to be an editor, and working with an expert on American booze writing a book on the history of bourbon means personalized recommendations. His answer: Buffalo Trace. A lot was riding on his answer: whether or not I, as an equal opportunity drinker of spirits, would buy him and his book depended on my liking his selection. His reasoning certainly sold me: here was an inexpensive bottle ($30) that wasn’t too sweet, or too woodsy. It would go down smooth, he assured me. And the package was cool but wouldn’t win me any hipster points. Spoiler alert: I loved it. And so began a partnership that was about as much what to drink as how to structure the narrative. In many ways the book itself depended on Reid’s unique take on what makes a bourbon good, and how to cut through the marketing hype and tales long made up about a lone man (it’s always a man) toiling on a single still, with a single barrel, to bring you an exemplary bottle of whiskey. Every chapter we worked on became a lesson in reality versus myth. There’s a reason we don’t know the name Lewis Rosensthiel but we know Jack Daniels, or Evan Williams. Rosenthiel is the man responsible for the legislation that cemented bourbon as an American-made whiskey. He was also Jewish, and as savvy a businessman as you’re likely to encounter in the annals of American lobbying. He had a surplus stock of whiskey to sell—a surplus that would, quite literally, evaporate into thin air—and how better to get bottles moving than to limit your competition from overseas. Only Americans could make and sell bourbon, and this definition has stuck. Of course getting to the heart of Reid’s nuanced portrait of American booze—a ride that includes stops at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, to peer at the whiskey-soaked bones of dead Civil War soldiers; at the Kentucky Derby, to sample the world’s finest mint julep; and at the Jim Beam laboratory for the future bourbon flavors—required careful research on my part, too. By which I mean: more bourbon tasting. Memorial Day weekend, 2014, in the thick of pouring over pages of Reid’s first draft, I did my patriotic duty as Method editor and went to the liquor store. There’s a wonderful chapter on the creative genius behind Maker’s Mark—and I sipped on Maker’s Mark. Reid’s brilliant final chapters look at the boom of craft distilleries, and I tried my first rye whiskey, from Tuthilltown Spirits, based in upstate New York. As a reader I love the context for my drink choices. And Bourbon Empire delivers on this and so many others levels. You’ll never look at a liquor store shelf—or bar menu—the same again. Read more about Bourbon Empire here.
Today, as the Kentucky Derby begins, we’re celebrating a wonderful backlist title: Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. Before the wildly successful Unbroken hit the shelves, Hillenbrand was best known for her fascinating book on the racehorse, Seabiscuit, and his place in history. Despite his impressive racing pedigree, Seabiscuit was an unlikely champion – he was small for a racehorse, had crooked legs, and didn’t run particularly well as a young horse. Under the gentle hands of his owner, Charles Howard and his trainer, Tom Smith, he slowly grew into his potential. Read more. When Seabiscuit started to win races, he seized the American imagination and became an underdog hero. Even when an injury seemed to ruin the horse’s career, Seabiscuit came back to the track, won a legendary race and cemented his hero status. Read more.
“It’s easy to talk to a horse if you understand his language. Horses stay the same from the day they are born until the day they die. They are only changed by the way people treat them.”― Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit: An American Legend Enjoy the Derby!