Last week, we reported on the National Association of College Stores annual meeting and CAMEX trade show, held in Los Angeles February 20-24. One of the highlights was the impressive gathering of authors. Jamie Lee Curtis, Sandra Brown, T.C. Boyle, Terry Tempest Williams and Mark Salzman spoke to enthusiastic crowds. But it was David McCullough who stole the show.
In a question-and-answer presentation with Parker Ladd (co-executive producer of the A&E Network's program Open Book), McCullough offered a powerful discussion of the presidency as well as the importance of education, values, ideas, writing--and booksellers. After the attacks of September 11, his avuncular style and faith in character and American ideals seemed to resonate even more.
Recounting his early life, he attributed much of his success to his years at Yale and its writing program. After a five-year stint at "a new magazine called Sports Illustrated," he joined the U.S. Information Agency at the start of the Kennedy administration, working under Edward R. Murrow. A chance view of photographs of the Johnstown flood at the Library of Congress piqued his interest, in large part because he was a native of Pittsburgh and had heard much about the flood. After reading several unsatisfactory books about the 1889 disaster, he decided to research the matter himself and quickly found that he loved the process. He noted that he followed the prescription of Thornton Wilder (a fellow at his college at Yale), who, when asked how got ideas for novels or plays, replied that he wrote "what he wanted to read or see on the stage." After taking a leap by leaving his job to write the book, McCullough, of course, quickly embarked on a rewarding professional life as a historian.
He thanked his wife for her support through his life, including helping him with his writing: "Everything I write she reads aloud to me or I read aloud to her." He called this process essential because "you note things heard that you don't see when reading." In what could be taken as a plug for audiobooks, he added that books should be read aloud: "It adds a whole new pleasure to the book."
On John Adams
Asked about John Adams, the subject of his current bestseller, McCullough told the story of how his fascination with Thomas Jefferson led him to learn more about Adams, then to propose a dual biography. During his research, he became ever more interested in Adams and then proposed to make the book about him alone. McCullough noted that his editors were less than enthusiastic about the change, saying, "Well, if that's what you want to do..." and told him not to expect the same success he had with Truman. McCullough related happily that so far, John Adams has reached an audience four times the size of Truman (Touchstone).
He spoke reverently of the thousand letters between John and Abigail Adams, which allowed him to "really know the Adamses in a way we couldn't any one else of that time." Jefferson, for one, burned all the letters he and his wife wrote to one another.
McCullough glowed as he recounted reading the actual letters, which were written on rag paper and thus have been well preserved--"There is something tactile and tangible when holding the original letters in your hand and reading them as the recipient did." He said he feels sorry for historians of the future who will often rely on electronic or printed records of this time. "You can tell much about Adams's mood by his handwriting," he noted.
Adams was something like a Dickens character and not at all a stereotypical New Englander, McCullough said. He was, among other qualities, "warmblooded, outspoken, passionate, devoted to his family." He could also be very stubborn, McCullough said: "The more I think of human nature, in the long run, I think stubbornness is a good thing. It could even be a pseudonym for character, especially in the matter of principle." For example, unlike all the other Founding Fathers, Adams did not own slaves--out of principle.
McCullough extolled Adams as an "example of the transforming magic of education." The son of a farmer "who knew how to write his name and a mother who was surely illiterate," he won a scholarship to Harvard, where he became a lifelong voracious reader. The author emphasized that Adams was not a blue blood of Bostonian legend.
McCullough's next book, about the year 1776, will focus on the bleakest time of the Revolutionary period, when the war seemed lost and Washington was in full retreat with a ragtag army of 3,000, against 35,000 disciplined British soldiers. Washington's stubbornness in not giving up--and winning improbable victories at Trenton and Princeton--turned the tide of the war. "It all came down to the human element, to what kind of person he was," said McCullough.
His rapt audience would likely have greeted his talk warmly, but after his final remarks about college bookstores, they gave him a standing ovation. In an era when most news and information are "decided for us," McCullough said, bookstores stock many thousands of titles that contain a multitude of "views, voices and contributions," which, together with libraries, form the basis of our civilization. He said, "So I applaud you for what you're doing and for the students you serve. They can go in to your stores and buy books that will change their lives. You are doing the Lord's work in a way. Keep up the good work."
The Author Breakfast
Jamie Lee Curtis spoke at NACS's Motivational Breakfast. She told the audience that the best achievements in life come from "doing what you enjoy doing and doing it for yourself." The actress published her first children's picture book, When I Was Little: A Four-Year-Old's Memoir of Her Youth (HarperCollins) in 1993. She followed it with Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born (1996), Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods That Make My Day (1998) and Where Do Balloons Go: An Uplifting Mystery (2000, all HarperCollins).
NACS's annual book and author breakfast featured four writers whose talks were variously humorous and quite serious--and always entertaining.
Terry Tempest Williams called it "a privilege" to appear before the group and said it is "a great gift of the book community that we really feel like family." She also thanked college booksellers for "upholding our freedom of speech" and said that "never has the power of truth and an atmosphere of openness and inquiry been so necessary for the soul of our nation."
She mentioned several college bookstores by name and discussed why they were so important to her. These included, for example, the Brigham Young University bookstore, which carries her books even though the school has not been happy with some of her work and has not allowed her on campus since 1988, and the University of New Mexico Bookstore, where "John Randall created an atmosphere where students could come together and voice their fears, feel safe and find alternatives."
"You as booksellers are bastions of free thought," she continued. "You are creating a new world."
She then read an op-ed piece she had written that the New York Times had published the day before, on February 21, about the miserable effect of the Bush Administration's energy plan on a part of Utah that she adores, describing "thumper trucks" that are exploring for oil and gas in a desert landscape and ruining the soil cover.
Mark Salzman spoke about why he writes, noting that he takes his time writing and is reminded of a shop teacher who commented on his projects: "Salzman, you're a slow worker, but you do a poor job."
For someone with his work habits, it's not surprising that he likes "the idea of the full-formed writing." Often, as he writes, he feels that his ideas are "shallow, clichéd." Perhaps some of this anguish is made apparent by his writing gear: often, he said, he writes wearing a towel wrapped around headphones and a tinfoil skirt (to keep his cat away).
His latest book, Lying Awake (Vintage), went through a lengthy metamorphosis, he said. At first, he thought the story, about a nun falling in love with her neurologist, "would be about doubt." After his own doubt about that doubt, he wanted to give up--but had an insight that saved the book. Salzman had dedicated his adult life to art, but, he wondered, what justified this compared to doing "something useful?... There is no justification," he continued. "I take it as faith that art matters." And so his story changed. "Writing is a collaboration with something outside the self that teaches you about life," he said.
Sandra Brown, the author of 62 novels and the forthcoming A Kiss Remembered (Apr., Warner), talked in part about what she cheerfully called her "glamorous life as a writer." Every morning, she said, she shows up at the office in jeans or sweats, in a grumpy mood, and tells her staff not to disturb her unless it's an emergency, and emergencies are defined as having to do with "blood and smoke."
Once at work, she said, "I face the wall of terror, and hope by late in the day I've scaled that wall."
She noted that her children "can reduce your self-confidence to rubble." For example, she offered to write something for her daughter's presentation. Her daughter replied, "But mom, I wanted to have something good."
T.C. Boyle, who teaches writing at nearby University of Southern California, called himself a "professional dreamer," who is often asked where he gets those "twisted ideas for my strange and perverted stories."
Usually, he said, he starts with something "I heard in the news or something bizarre that popped in my mind." One example, a recent story of his that appeared in the New Yorker, started with the concept of flying cats.
It may take him three weeks to write a story, he said. In the beginning he has a "miserable feeling," and is sure he can never write again. Then he'll get a first paragraph and a character, and "it starts moving."