Posted tagged ‘Junot Diaz’

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.0: Blurbs redux

June 17, 2009

So, when we last left this journal, I promised to get to the point on the dark art of blurbing. 

Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is by far my  best-blurbed book, boasting enthusiastic and generous praise from a very diverse crew of luminaries — (David Bodanis, Junot Díaz, Timothy FerrisBrian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Sylvia Nasar, and Neal Stephenson).

This follows, as I wrote last time, a much sparser field of those who promoted my three previous books.  How — and why — did I go for this level of long-lead pre-publication encouragement?

The how first:  I began to contact potential blurbers as I was finishing the editor’s revisions to my first-submission mss.  That’s nine months before publication — four or five months earlier than I had in the past, following publishers’ schedules of bound galley production.

Again the reasoning behind this can be found in diary entry 8.0 — basically, if you plan to ask busy people for a favor, best to do so in a time frame that gives them more of a chance to say “yes” than plead the press of prior commitments.

What this choice meant was that I was sending a version of my book that was at least two, and really three passes short of being done.  It wasn’t typeset.  It did not possess the form factor of a book.  All of which meant that I was asking a double favor:  that someone should read my work and that they should do so  in an inconvenient form.*

So, step one was simply to render my mss. as readable as possible.  Book Antiqua font, printed double sided at 1.5 line spacing, a photocopy of the cover design to front it inside a Kinko’s black spiral binding with a clear plastic front  — i.e. a pretty standard “I’m trying here” manuscript package.

Step two was to identify a couple of people who might be willing to read with charity — knowing that what they were seeing was still unfunished.  That means personal friends and/or those who have made it clear that they are supporters of my body of work and this project.

Critically:  the ask has to be open-ended, imho:  you enquire of those already well-disposed to you if they are willing to do you an unusually large favor (large with reference to this favor-space), or whether they would prefer to wait until the galleys come along.  Minimize the chance that they will say no to your first ambition, in other words, in a way that will make it more difficult to come back at a later date for help from someone reasonably inclined to deliver.

So that’s what I did, with three folks on my short list.  First up was David Bodanis, author of E=MC2, and much else besides.  David and I met about five years ago at an Aspen Institute event celebrating the Einstein miracle year centennial, and it was one of those instant friendships.  He’s a great, funny, incredibly smart-and-quick guy, and we share a lot of the same interests and personlity tics (for good and ill…but that’s a different story).

He and I are serendipitously-met are personal as well as professional friends, in other words, and that made it possible just to call him and ask him both to read the mss. as a fellow writer, providing a reality check, and, assuming it wasn’t in his eyes a disaster, to give me a very early blurb.

A call from my then-editor Rebecca Saletan made the timing more important than I had first expected.  Despite the usual wait-for-it counsel I had already received on blurbs, when I told her in early September, 2008, that David had liked the mss. she immediately asked for his blurb so that she could use it in her presentation to the sales conference for HMH’s spring list.

And that gets to one of the “whys” of blurbing

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Quote for the Day: Junot Diaz/Thoughts to Think in the Midst of Interesting Times Edition

October 2, 2008

I have the very good fortune to call the wonderful writer and generous artist Junot Diaz my colleague (and friend).

A week or so ago, he gave a reading from his now famed-across-the-galaxy novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao at MIT — it was kind of a homecoming after roughly a year of travels and talking in support of the book.

In introducing Junot to the crowd (and the world — the reading will be up on the MIT World site in fairly short order)  Professor James Paradis, head of MIT’s writing program, pulled out one of the less well-known bits of Junot’s work, the 2001 edition of The Beacon Best collection that he edited.

Paradis read a short passage from Junot’s introduction, and the quote so precisely catches the necessity of vigilance and the importance of art — never more vital than at those times when the self-styled “grown-ups” have so decisively lost their way.

Here, expanded, is that passage:

1.

For the last couple of years I — a former five pages a day type guy — have not been able to write with any consistency.  The reasons for my “block” are numerous and not particularly relevant, but as a result I’ve had more time to read newspapers and watch television, more time to notice how the world is being represented by those whom we shall call for simplicity’s sake the powers-that-be.  I’ve been aware since about the Reagan administration of the gap between the world that they swear exists and the world I know exists.  What I hadn’t anticipated  — I guess I should have been reading more Chomsky — is how enormous that gap had become.

…[Junot uses several paragraphs to discusse his experience fighting the New York City Board of Education’s short lived school privatization scheme as a way into, inter alia, his framing of the work he had selected for the collection.  And then…]

5.

During the last week of the anti-privatization campaign, when Edison and the Board of Education and the media and the politicians were turning up the heat, I would occasionally feel myself losign heart.  (There’s only so much exposure to the Official Story one can take before it starts to wear on you.)  I was very fortunate, however, for it was at this same time that I was reading these stories, these essays, these poems.  While those of us against privatization were being knocked about in newspapers and on the news, while we were being erased and distorted into cartoons, I was sifting through journals, printing pages out from e-mail, thumbing through blurred photcopies.  Would you t hink me sentimental if I said that the freshness and originality and humanity of these writers and their work renewed me?  When billions and billions of dollars are spent trying to convince you to see the world in one particular way, isn’t it something like salvation when you discover voices, brave and unwavering, who invite you to see it in another way?

Amen and amen.

Image:  Jan Davidszoon de Heem, “Still-Life of Books,” 1628.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Program Notes: Pulitzer Shout-Out edition.

April 7, 2008

No science here, just enormous pleasure at the deserved honors falling the way of two good folks I know.

Mark Feeney is a newspaper guy from when he and I both used chisel and slate to work up our first drafts.  He’s done most of what can be done on a paper — obituaries, features, criticism, editing, reporting, always with a feel for the subject and sweet touch with language.  He loves the vivid image, and this year his profession has honored him for the skill with which he comes up with lines like this one, from his remembrance of Barbara Stanwyck:

In “Clash by Night” (1952), a shocked Paul Douglas finds her in a bar in broad daylight and asks how often she drinks whiskey in the morning. “Only when I have a cold,” Stanwyck says, with an irony so flat it could be a pancake in Kansas.

Ladies and Gentleman:  Your 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for arts criticism.

And then there is my MIT Writing Program colleague Junot Diaz.  Junot has been in the news a lot this year, all for his astonishing novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s a great work, no hyperbole, funny, desperately sad, often horrifying, beautifully written.  Actually — beauty isn’t quite the word.  Junot’s writing is brilliant, a complicated play of different styles and levels, genuinely exciting prose.  He wins this years Pulitzer for fiction (after having taken home the National Book Critics Circle Award already) for that quality of effort in this novel, but what the awards don’t tell you is what great colleage he is.  He is a demanding, generous, inspiring — hackneyed, I know, but true this time — writing teacher.  His students come back again and again, not because he is easy on them — quite the reverse — but because he evokes from them expression they did not know they could execute.

I’ll be honest.  Like a lot of writers, I think, my first reaction to reading an awards announcement that does not include me is pure, green-eyed jealousy, (never mind whether I’ve got anything remotely in the running, of course).  But not this time.  The good guys, both in the sense of good people and good writers, scored two.  A glass will be raised slightly west of my current location to both this evening.  And go take a look at their stuff.

Image:  Edward Collier “Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board,” c. 1699.  The Tate Gallery.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons.