When researchers in 2285 get around to mapping the genomes of highly specific types — the Wesleyan-educated grant writer, the gay foreign-film publicist, the "slow" dude who bikes around Brooklyn in tight nylon slacks, Yankees cap, tight jacket, blaring 1010 WINS on their small Panasonic radios (an eternal and beloved type, at least to me) — they will, I predict, make a discovery: A certain protein common to the DNA of a wide range of writers.
This protein blocks writers from working simultaneously in multiple genres. The historian finds it hard to write, or even think of, good magazine pieces. Screenwriters fail at getting that novel done. Narrative historians struggle to write, you know, words for blogs.
And yes, I know about Christopher Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens is a mutant.
For the rest of us, the need to concentrate on the form at hand makes thoughts of other genres float away, uncatchable. Your brain offers up pictures of deserts and empty rooms. Which is my explanation of why I'm submitting a patchwork of thoughts today. My genetic disability is not allowing me to write a coherent essay or what passes for an essay on the blogosphere (am I showing my ignorance — do they do those here?). Really, I've been trying all morning. It's not happening.
So. Three nuggets of book-related, um... Man, this is really bad.
The recent controversy about the disappearance of book reviews makes me wonder how many writers actually read supposedly endangered books. Most of my spare entertainment time is taken up with 1) TV; 2) DVDs; 3) a tie between books and CDs. My research means I'm in an archives or at home reading for hours on end, and it takes a great writer with a killer idea to turn me back to books.
The truth is that it's hard to find enough good books to read. I suspect everyone has this problem. I stopped reading fiction about 10 years ago, except for the Travis McGee series by John D. MacDonald, which I read over and over again. A shocking admission from one in the profession, but fiction slowly lost its hold on me until, like Kingsley Amis, all I have left is detective novels.
I read what I write, mostly: narrative nonfiction. But there are perhaps 7 or 8 books published each year that I'm compelled to read, and that number doesn't seem to increase with the rapid rise in the number of books published. For the rest, I'm constantly looking for things I've overlooked. The great nonfiction idea is as elusive and rare as white tigers in the wild.
The only real pursuit for a writer of nonfiction is to write one of those books.
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Having said that, there really is a limited amount of ways to get your work noticed. And it can be painful. You feel like your book is dying for lack of oxygen — making horrible gasping sounds as it sinks into the 5-digit depths of Amazon, as you look on helplessly. My book made the NY Times Bestseller List at #33 this week (thanks, everyone who bought it, and are you sure one is enough?), but anything can happen.
This has revived thoughts of a contest I had with fellow journalists years ago. My challenge was to place as many articles with different magazines using the same formula "Everything I know about X I learned from Y." A woman's magazine published "Everything I Know about Sex I learned from Movies." A men's magazine did one, too, with other variables. I was up to 4 or 5 published articles before the game was up.
But, with the success of a book at stake, perhaps there is room for one more: Everything I Know About X I Learned from Pirates. And I think I've got a lead. More news on that soon.
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If you ever write a book, you will learn that the best part of publishing is the radio interview. DJs from Topeka and Galveston and — what's a town in New Hampshire? — call you up and as you answer the questions (which are almost always the same), you can get a feel for the part of the country you're speaking to. It's the ads for local restaurants and hardware stores, the traffic news with the names of unfamiliar highways and the headlines about the local banker found crashed in the ditch with a woman other than his wife beside him. The small-market DJs especially bring you back to a less sophisticated time, affecting a down-home patois at very high volume, they seem closer to hucksters from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer than they do to Madison Avenue voices. It's like opening the window for ten minutes and feeling a prairie wind blowing through. Just enough to make you want to visit.
Or, more often, not.
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Stephan Talty is the author of Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign, the real story of the pirates of the Caribbean. "A pleasure to read from bow to stern," raved Entertainment Weekly, which gave it an A grade. His book Mulatto America: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture was published to critical acclaim in 2003.
His posts appear every Tuesday throughout the month of May on the Powells.com blog.
Books mentioned in this post
Stephan Talty is the author of Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Bloody Reign