"So tiny a book," Kirkus Reviews wrote of Marty Asher's novel, The Boomer, "yet so devastatingly large in its subject, import, and effect." Comprised of 101 objects and moments - "snapshots," Asher called them - The Boomer recreates a man's life from only the fundamental building blocks. Like a good poem, each reading brings out different elements.
Is it really a novel? On the one hand, Asher follows his hero from birth to death. On the other hand, the book contains a lot of pictures and it takes about twenty minutes to read. It's colorful and brief - a lot like life, in that respect.
Possibly, The Boomer is so succinct because Marty Asher has a challenging day job. As Vice President and Editor-in-Chief at Vintage Books, Asher is widely credited as one of the chief engineers of the trade paperback revolution. Trade paperbacks - you know, not the disposable looking paperbacks you find in drugstores, but the smart, built-to-last editions that in the last ten years or so have become the standard format of quality releases. (For an illustration of the difference, see our side-by side comparison of trade paper and mass market formats.)
Not a bad job, if you can get it. "When I met Philip Roth," Asher admitted, "I just wanted to genuflect."
Dave: Where did you get the idea for The Boomer?
Marty Asher: It started when I was staring at a wall of CDs. I don't know if I was depressed that day, but it occurred to me that if I were to die my life could be represented by the CDs I'd bought. I counted them up, and it was something like two hundred-nineteen.
I thought of the line, "He collected two hundred-nineteen CDs in his lifetime." Somehow that triggered something. I started thinking of all these other things that seem like they're going to go on forever, but really are very finite, other things in a person's life that you might note that way: the first day of school, the first time you get a pet, your first job. I started writing these things down on index cards and carrying them around. I wasn't sure where I was going with it.
When I had about fifty or sixty cards, I spread them out on a table. Gradually I realized that I was tracing the arc of a life. From there, I started playing with it, turning it from a demographic into a character. That was the fun part.
Dave: Did you cut a lot out from those original drafts? Originally, were more pieces in here?
Asher: Originally, there were probably twice as many pieces. And virtually every line was a paragraph, virtually every paragraph was a page.
I wanted to create snapshots, to see how much I could take away and how much the reader could fill in. The challenge was to have the character be representative of a generation, but also to make him his own person.
Dave: Chip Kidd's design...the pictures that accompany the text really elevate the book to another level, so much so that it's hard to imagine the story without them. How did he get involved?
Asher: That was my publisher's idea. At first I was taken aback. I thought, What's going to happen to this? Is it going to become a storybook? I talked to Chip, and we were going to hire an illustrator. We actually got someone fairly well-known, but we saw one or two sketches and we realized that if we used somebody with a known style, that would bring a whole set of emotional associations to the story.
But Chip had an idea which I think was quite brilliant. He used something called the CSA, the artistic equivalent of a thesaurus, advertising art and stock art arranged so you can look up the word baby, for instance, and get a page of kids in strollers, babies crying, people changing diapers....
Sometimes Chip selected art to directly follow the story and other times the art would present something completely unexpected, like the grenade alongside the piece about The Boomer's son telling him he's gay.
Asher: My next book is going to be 800 pages!
Dave: I wondered about that. You certainly have an affinity for brevity.
Asher: First of all, I'm very impressed that you got a copy of Shelter. I thought I had the only copies left in existence.
But regarding brevity, I think it's partially because I have a crazed lifestyle. I have an enormously demanding day job. Writing a novel demands blocks of three- and four-hour sessions. It can take you two hours just to figure out where you were yesterday. So there's something about those short bursts that simply works with my life. And I like the short bursts. They present their own challenge.
The gardening books were a little different. I'd moved to the suburbs. When we'd moved into the house, there was snow on the ground. Then in April, suddenly, all these things started coming up. I'd always lived in the city, and I panicked. I said to a friend of mine, "Am I going to have to devote my whole life to this? Isn't there a way to do this in twenty minutes a day?"
Dave: About your day job: how did you end up as Editor-in-Chief at Vintage?
Asher: My first publishing job was at a detective magazine, one of those really brutal ones. My job was to go through newspapers from around the country and clip out the murder pieces, then call the reporters and ask if they'd like to do stories based on them. I did this for a year, and I thought I was going to crack up. But Fawcett, the publisher, also did Gold Medal Books - people like Elmore Leonard, crime paperback originals. That was the first big step. I had a couple of in-between jobs until, twelve years ago, I ended up at Vintage.
Dave: More than once, people have told me they read a book, a trade paperback, simply because it looked interesting and Vintage had published it. The one I think of is Ondaatje's English Patient. I read it when Vintage first put it out and it made such an impression on me, the one with the cover of the man hunched over in a sandstorm.
It almost seems funny to look back and think that trade paperbacks are a fairly recent phenomenon. Do you remember what the first trade paperback titles were?
Jason Epstein was the genius behind trade paperbacks. The idea was that there were books being read in colleges in hardcover that he felt had a larger audience. He started Vintage and he started Anchor, about forty years ago.
I was Editor-in-Chief of Pocket Books, and we published fairly serious books in rack size. I remember we published D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel. We published The World According to Garp. Actually, the first literary book I can remember that we published in trade paper - and people thought we were crazy - was The Color Purple. But it's a medium that's more conducive to good books because they last longer and they're easier to read.
When mass markets started out, eighty percent of the country had never been to a bookstore, but once you had bookstores all over the place, magazine-type distribution was no longer necessary. Now, in the last ten years, the mass market industry has become dominated by genres.
Dave: What were the arguments against trade paper?
Asher: You might put out 200,000 copies in mass market against 50,000 in trade paper - but the average return on mass markets was about 50 or 60%. Half of them were coming back to the publishers. Then you look at the difference in cover price, the difference in royalty...I went through this many times with many authors.
After a while, trade paperback became a good neighborhood. Authors started arguing, "Why are you putting my books in mass market instead of trade paper?" to the point where almost everybody started putting their entire backlist out in trade paper. And I think there are some books now that would do better in mass market. I noticed that Elmore Leonard is now in trade paper - which is fine, but there's also something nice about going on vacation and packing nice, portable mass markets, that kind of thing.
Dave: Speaking of portable, how do you see electronic books affecting the industry?
Asher: Nobody knows what will happen. Electronic books present an interesting challenge, but I think what gets lost as far as publishers go, whether people choose to read on paper, listen to an audio tape, or stare at a computer screen, that's a personal choice. That said, I've yet to meet a person who said, "I'd really like to do a lot more reading, but books, they have all these pages, you can't plug them in, they don't have batteries. When are they going to get with it so I can do some more reading?"
Sometimes I feel like electronic books are a solution to a nonexistent problem - except, I can see instances where you go on a long trip and maybe your electronic book takes up less room. I think interesting things are going to happen much more quickly in terms of distribution. That's happening already. Also with out-of-print books, instant books, for instance: books won't really go out-of-print anymore.
Potentially, those are really important advances. At Vintage, we're pretty good about keeping books in print; we have some that sell less than five hundred copies a year. But it's really hard to make the argument if you look at the math. Even if we increased the price, we're losing a fortune, but I'm not going to put those Faulkner novels out-of-print. Now we can print them as needed, and I think that's a good thing for publishers and a good thing for authors.
Dave: From your perspective, how has the writing world changed with the rise of online booksellers and the immediate access people now have to books?
Asher: For consumers, it's a terrific thing. You're reading the newspaper, and they're talking about some interesting book...Before electronic publishing, by lunchtime, you'd have forgotten the title. Now, if I'm sitting at my desk, very often I just log on and order it. You can act more quickly.
But it makes writers completely neurotic. I have writers calling me every hour, asking, "Did you guys do something? I went from 10,517 to 4,123 on Amazon?" Meanwhile, one person might have bought a copy.
The issue of how it affects bookstores...My hunch is that just as movies were supposed to destroy the theater and television was supposed to destroy radio, we always think that one technology is going to replace the technology before it. I think bookstores are as much a social phenomenon as anything. They're places to hang out, pick up a book, sit down with it, see what the interesting person next to you is reading.
To me, the big issue is, How do we get our kids to read more? If I have one criticism of the publishing industry in general, that's where I think we've been woefully negligent. Isn't it terrific about Harry Potter? Well, fine, but as a business, we should be papering schools with books, for example. When my son went off to college, he had boxes of free gifts from Gillette and Coke. Why aren't there boxes of books?
Dave: Christopher Paul Curtis was here to present Bud, Not Buddy recently, and we talked about its phenomenal success across various demographics. He felt that part of the reason it sold so many copies was that there really isn't a whole lot of literature out there about black kids. In part, he was just being modest, but I think it's still a legitimate point.
Publishing is big business, and business is about the bottom line, but are there programs out there to correct these imbalances?
Asher: Well, you want books to be like bread; you want them to be necessary. But it is a business, and, especially in this generation, we're competing with media that's much flashier.
But I want to turn the question around and ask, "With all the entertainment options out there now, why are books doing so well?" There's so much competition these days that it makes me feel as if there must be almost a primal need for them.
Also, serious books are doing really well. I was just looking at your bestseller list; there's Michael Cunningham and Andre Dubus III...these are good books, and they're selling in unheard-of quantities.
The publishing industry loves to beat its breast. We're always in a terrible period. But in the last few years, we've had case after case - right now, Zadie Smith's White Teeth; and at Knopf last year we had Nathan Englander's For the Relief of Unbearable Urges; then others like Cold Mountain and Snow Falling on Cedars - examples of good, serious fiction which have sold millions of copies. I think that's a wonderful thing, cause for celebration. As is the success of a book like Bud, Not Buddy.
Dave: I was arguing the other day that it seems to me more people are reading and talking about books than at any point in my life. As you say, there's a lot of serious fiction being read by the mainstream now, but there's also a lot of very smart, entertaining books selling in huge quantities: Nick Hornby, for instance.
Asher: The level of popular entertainment for this generation is much more literary. You have your Grisham and your Tom Clancy, but those authors seem to be more isolated. The reading group thing certainly has something to do with that. I think it's a very good time for serious writers.
People say, "Oh, publishers just want to sell junk." Well, we can't sell junk. Nobody wants to read it. We can sell good literary fiction.
Dave: What kind of advice do you offer writers?
Asher: I don't think the problem is getting published; the problem is writing something worthy of publication. So the first thing is, go back, work on it, get it to be the best it can possibly be. Show it to as many people as you possibly can whose opinion you respect. One stupid mistake will bring you a rejection slip - if you don't know the difference between lay and laid, forget it - simply because of the volume of manuscripts coming in.
The other thing is persistence. Work really hard and persist. I don't believe there are hundreds of potentially Pulitzer Prize-winning novels floating around out there simply because writers can't find publishers for them. Books do get accepted from the slush; people do have access. It's easy to email a publisher or an agent. It's easy to email an author now.
Dave: Are there particular books you've published that came out of nowhere?
Asher: Well, most of what we publish are reprints that came out of hardcover. But a woman [Loraine Anderson] sent me a letter saying she wanted to do a book about women's writings about nature called Sisters of the Earth. I thought, That sounds like a good idea. We've sold about 100,000 copies of it. A couple years ago, somebody sent in a proposal for a book called A Beginner's Guide to the World Economy, which was simply an A-to-Z of terms like GNP. We're about to do our third or fourth edition of that.
Fiction is harder, but we had a case recently where one of our editors went to a writer's conference at the University of Iowa and found a woman who had done a collection of stories which Iowa published fairly quietly. He picked up the rights, then she wrote a novel, got an agent and a big six-figure deal.
It happens, but the talent has to be there.
Dave: Will you continue to write?
Asher: I've always written. To me, writing is just a way of making sense of the world.
I've had an idea for a novel that I've been obsessed about for about ten years, and if I every get a large enough block of time I might do it.
People ask me if it's harder or easier, being in publishing, to do it, and the short answer is that it's easier; you know how to get it published.
But the part that's harder is that, as an editor, my job is saying no. It can be counterproductive to do that with your own writing. You write two lines and decide they're terrible, again and again. You have to turn off that critical faculty. I have sayings posted on my wall like "It's much easier to criticize a half-finished novel than to complete one." I have to give myself assignments. I have to remind myself, It may be a good novel or a bad novel, but before judging let's make it a finished novel.
Dave: On the other hand, it must be incredible to work so closely with such amazing authors.
Asher: There are some. When I met Philip Roth, I just wanted to genuflect. But one time early in my career I met one of my cultural heroes - I won't name names - and he turned out to be a complete asshole. I wish I'd never met him. Then there are others who are completely delightful. People are people.
Certainly, I'm in awe of the talent and the labor. Someone like Philip Roth, in his late sixties now, turning out a major novel every year - it's staggering. Or somebody like Michael Ondaatje, what he does with the English language is incredible.
Dave: Before you run off to your reading, is there anything exciting you're working on now that people should be looking for? Something to anticipate?
Asher: Actually, this fall, for the first time in this country, we're publishing Haruki Murakami's first novel, Norwegian Wood, which is by far his bestselling novel in Japan. It sold four million copies. There was a bad English translation that was bootlegged into this country, but we've retranslated it, and we'll be publishing it as a Vintage Original this fall. It's a wonderful coming-of-age-in-the-sixties novel, very different from what one might expect from him, less surreal, more tender. That's something I'm very excited about. I'm a big fan of Murakami and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Marty Asher visited Powell's on June 19, 2000 to present The Boomer and talk about his life at Vintage. We spoke for a while after the conversation presented here, but I don't remember about what. I'd turned off the tape recorder by that point and it's been three months now since that day. Asher spoke highly of Nicholson Baker, I do remember that, and I recall being glad. I'd liked Baker a lot. His was the first interview we posted at Powells.com.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State