Posted in books, writing

Authors in Conversation at Newsweek

Just thought some of you might be interested in this. It’s a roundtable with several authors (Susan Orlean, Lawrence Block, Elizabeth Strout, Robert Caro, Kurt Andersen) in the July 13, 2009 issue of Newsweek:

The Write Stuff

Holden Caulfield had it right. The test of a great book, he said in The Catcher in the Rye, was whether, once you finished it, you wished the author were a great friend you could call up at home.

So, who should we call up first?


Writer of vampire stories and science fiction. First novel, "Revenants Abroad", available now at Amazon. If you like a vampire you can go out drinking with and still respect yourself in the morning, I think you'd like Andrej.

21 thoughts on “Authors in Conversation at Newsweek

  1. I’m calling James Joyce tomorrow before lunch, to try and catch him while he’s sober. Besides, if it’s after 5 and Nora thinks I’m flirting she’ll kick my ass.


  2. ROFLMAO! I’d have kind of the same problem with Kerouac, although there’s no missus to worry about.

    You could probably take Nora… I’m just sayin’… 😉


    1. Hell, Kerouac probably wouldn’t even be AWAKE before lunch! Your best best would probably be to catch him at the BEGINNING of a pub crawl, when he’s maybe a little buzzed but still coherent.


  3. Your link doesn’t work but I googled it.

    I like this statement from Lawrence Block:

    “The enormous mistake a lot of young writers make is that they want to know what people want.”

    But I’m not sure he’s an author I’d want to call up at home. He’s intelligent and entertaining but he avoids writing about anything personal. It’s the personal stuff that interests me.

    I thought his book on how to write was more interesting than his stories and novels. There was some personal stuff in there at least.


  4. Hi Joseph,

    Thanks for letting me know about the link, I’ll see if I can fix it.

    I’ve always liked Larry Block’s style, but of course his books are not intended to be deep personal meditations. Sometimes I like a light, entertaining read, something funny and fun (like Terry Pratchett, as well). I also have Block’s books on writing, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Spider Spin Me a Web, and Writing the Novel. I used to enjoy his column in Writers’ Digest, and was sorry to see him leave the magazine. It hasn’t been the same. I don’t really read books to learn about the author’s personal life, unless of course it’s a biography.


  5. I found the bit about attending signings and stuff especially interesting, because their experiences match what I’ve always imagined: that they’re usually not a good idea. If an author is outgoing and extroverted, and wants to attend such functions- then I’m sure it’s a boon. If an author is introverted, shy, or reserved- then I don’t think they should ever feel pressured to attend such things. Their discomfort will clearly show through.

    And, as some of the authors noted, some readers will be disappointed just because you aren’t what they expected. And what exactly do they expect? Maybe my readers would be upset that I don’t sashay in wearing crinoline? 😉

    As for who I’d want to have over for lunch… I want a tea party with the Bronte Sisters, Poe, Shirley Jackson, Agatha Christie, and Terry Pratchett. That would be surreal for many reasons…


  6. Terry Pratchett is a natural for the Mad Hatter at that tea party 😉

    I’ve never even gone to a book signing/reading. The only one I was ever tempted to attend was one Ursula K. Le Guin did at Powells a couple years ago, but I figured I’d be too shy to even ask for her autograph in the book. 😦 I understand she is quite personable, however. My son and some friends saw R.A. Salvatore (also at Powells) and he is VERY outgoing and chatty from what they told me. Actually he sounded like quite a hoot. Me, personally, I don’t even like my co-workers to know when my b’day is. I don’t like people making a fuss over me. I’m just afraid that may be part of the price writers pay, along with having to do the Twitter thing, and MySpace, and blogging… Being a writer seems to be less and less about the writing and more about acting like a celebrity. Phooey.


  7. I would love to wangle an invitation to the tea party, Gypsyscarlett.

    I have been to a lot of book signings. Some authors were shy like Dirk Bogarde and Makoto Shinkai. Some were larger than life like Alan Moore and Whoopi Goldberg. But most of the time I would rather read books by authors who are not comfortable at such things.

    I agree that writers need to have time to be idle, to daydream and to drift through the day like one of Makoto Shinkai’s cherry blossoms. I am sceptical about all the articles I have seen urging writers to use Twitter and Facebook. What about going for a long walk in the country instead? What they write might be more interesting then.


  8. Joseph,

    Of course you’re invited to the tea party. Pull up a chair. 🙂


    As I’m sure you’re aware, I’m in the same exact boat. I’m extremely private and just feel totally uncomfortable at the mere thought of that stuff. I think it comes down to this: you just have to do what’s right for you. I understand the need for publicity today. I’ll blog, chat with all you other great guys and gals out there, do print interviews (if anyone is ever interested in me, that is) etc… But I have no intention of ever even trying to be famous. That’s simply not me. And I’d be miserable.

    I don’t think it’s much different than actors. There are ones who choose to live very publicly- going to the hot places to be seen, doing lots of press. And then there are ones who manage to act, carve out a living, but aren’t famous because they choose to live quietly. Sure, they probably miss out on getting some roles. There’s a price to be paid either way, so it comes down to what is most important to the individual.


    I agree. And I’m reading more and more articles and blog posts from writers (from all levels ) who are complaining that they have no time to actually write their novels because they’re spending all their time networking on twitter and stuff. If someone enjoys twitter, that’s one thing, but if they’re using it so much they don’t have time to work on their next novel…well, that just doesn’t make any sense to me.


  9. I have to confess that I have been to 2 book signings but neither were to see the author specifically. The first was for Janet Evanovich, but it was really to see my sister read a character’s part –which i missed b/c the place was mobbed with rabid fans. I was amazed at the groupies, but the author stayed at that table and signed every booked and posed for every picture. Made it look like quite a business enterprise rather than anything literary.

    The second signing was Meg Cabot, of The Princess Diaries, and it was a gift to my daughter from a family friend. It was at a children’s bookstore, and the crowd was relatively small. Ms. Cabot was gracious and tailored her remarks mostly to the tweens in attendance, but she engaged the adults too. Far more intimate an event, and you felt like the author just stopped by on the way from grabbing a cup of coffee before heading home. She was very approachable and hung around for quite some time. No stylist either –i remember her cool shoes.

    I’m guessing the comfort level is different for every author, but publishing is still a business, and you have to feed that beast if your end-goal is to be a commercial success.


    1. If Janet Evanovich ever comes to Portland (most likely at Powells) for a book signing I would have to go see her 😉 I doubt I’d have the guts to talk to her, or even get in line for a book to be signed, but still. I’m sure if book signings become necessary in my life I would be more and more comfortable and courageous about it as time went on.


  10. “I’m guessing the comfort level is different for every author, but publishing is still a business, and you have to feed that beast if your end-goal is to be a commercial success.”

    When I worked at a bookstore, we had some small to midlist authors come and do signings. We would order several copies of their books, they would come and sit at a small table with the stack and smile hopefully as customers walked by. Many would purposely avoid the table or walk very quickly by it, avoiding eye contact. Very few books of theirs ever sold.

    I totally agree with you about publishing being a business, but from what I’ve personally seen, I don’t think book signing are effective unless the author has the sort of outgoing, friendly personality to really pull the customers over to them. (obviously it’s different situation if it’s a famous author and people are coming to the store specifically to see them).

    So anyhow, with the need for publicity, I think maybe it’s best to try to work with one’s strengths, rather than stress over weaknesses. Maybe for us more introverted and shy types, there are other avenues of publicity to explore. Like focusing on online networking and other print avenues.

    regarding Meg Cabot, I’m glad you enjoyed the book signing you went to. She sounds very sweet. 🙂


    1. I think you’re right about signings being more effective for an already well-known author. If it’s someone you’ve never heard of you probably won’t want to stop by the table and feel obligated to buy their book if it’s not likely to be something you’d want to read. Maybe I’ll have to scout some of the ones at Powells since they do a nice job of publicizing their signings first, and see if that makes a difference. Most of the authors they bring in I’ve never heard of, but it would be interesting to see what the average turnout is.


  11. I know that I am intrigued by all the writers I have met here at Filling Spaces, and would love to met any/all of you at your respective signings. 🙂

    But it’s your “voices” rather than your signatures that are the real draw. Maybe that’s why fans give the impolite excuse that the author “isn’t what they expected.” When an actor physically inhabits a character, we have to remember that the actor really is separate from the character. But writers make up whole worlds ~ it is no wonder some fans would be disappointed or surprised when the writer appears to be mortal. Or really not too different from the rest of us; a little overweight, bald, or tired-looking.


  12. You make a good point, Rosie – a lot of people don’t realize that they didn’t actually want to meet Janet Evanovich or Jo Rowling: they were hoping to meet Stephanie Plum or Hermione, and when it’s not like that, they are disappointed.


  13. Then of course there’s Anne Rice who would arrive in a coffin, dressed like a vampire. (you knew I was going to get a vampire reference in here somewhere 😉 )


  14. “I know that I am intrigued by all the writers I have met here at Filling Spaces, and would love to met any/all of you at your respective signings. ”

    Right back at you. 🙂

    I’m actually a pretty good conversationalist. So I’m not worried about talking one on one with someone who came up to my table. (getting them over to my table would be the problem) My major concern, though, remains the new emphasis on working on publicity OVER working on one’s novel.

    I know there’s that new debate about whether publishing companies should lower advances and up royalties. When I first heard that suggestion, I thought it sounded terrible. But then I heard someone argue that with a lower advance, a writer has less stress about earning back the advance, and thus lowers the chance of the publishing company deciding the author isn’t worth their time of day, and not publishing them again. And, with a lower advance, the publishing companies would start pumping more money back into book reviews and other publicity on their end, allowing the writer to concentrate more on the writing aspect again.

    That argument did make sense to me. Thoughts? Opinions?


  15. Well, being the cynical corporate wage slave that I am,

    And, with a lower advance, the publishing companies would start pumping more money back into book reviews and other publicity on their end, allowing the writer to concentrate more on the writing aspect again.

    I don’t think that it necessarily follows that publishers would put any money that didn’t go to the writer into publicity. The name of the game is “cost savings” these days, so if they can simply get away with paying less, they will. I think they will still try to shunt any publicity duties to the writer once they can get us trained to think it’s our responsibility. As Rosie said, publishing is a business and they are using the same business model that other corporations are.

    And so once again the conversation comes around to bloodsucking 😉


  16. I’m inclined to agree with you, gypsyscarlett, in that it would be less stress on the writer if the publisher adopts the “pay for performance” type of approach. And just to show you how schizophrenic I am I also agree with DD in that the arrangement will only be as good as the up-front partnership between the 2 parties. Both need to be invested in the product’s success, and very clear on what the metrics are for measuring success. The less sophisticated (or less represented) the author, the more the publisher can dictate the terms.

    This feels a bit like our earlier conversation about the writers who will work for free — and how that just leads down the path of de-valuing everybody’s work.


  17. The silly part is most writers are not good salespeople. That’s a whole ‘nother animal, a completely different skill set (although there are salespeople who write and sell books — Tony Robbins, anyone?). If we were good at selling we’d be in sales making bank, instead of trying to get a book published that might or might not make money. Someday. Asking writers to now take on the job of marketing their own book will, I think, in most cases be less than effective.


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