Dispatches From Squaw’s Annual High-Altititude Literary Gathering

Almost a decade ago, I joined the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley for an intensive, week-long non-fiction workshop. It was a summer camp-like experience in the high Sierras. Each morning, about a dozen of us in the non-fiction workshop gathered around a table to critique each other’s manuscripts — usually discussing two submissions each morning. In the afternoons, we’d either stay for the craft talks or hike through the mountains. After dinner, we’d stay up late, swapping stories with fiction and non-fiction writers alike.

That week in Squaw in August of 2004 was both scary and inspiring, in part because the caliber of the teachers was so high. Coming back for more, I came back again the following summer. Joining the Community of Writers at Squaw was critical to my taking the leap from being a newspaper reporter to an author. To this day, I remain deeply grateful for the experience and for the many friendships that began in that high-altitude setting.

For one, Squaw led me to my literary agent and friend Michael Carlisle, who founded Squaw’s non-fiction program and is a co-founder of the New York-based literary agency Inkwell Management. It also helped me reconnect with someone who I’d first met as a teenager and who, in the subsequent years, built a remarkable career as a journalist, author, and media entrepreneur: Frances Dinkelspiel.

Like me, Frances had graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and was a longtime newspaper and magazine reporter. She was also hoping to take her writing to the next level by writing a book. The result was her magnificent biography, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California (St. Martin’s Press, 2008.)

After spending that week together at Squaw’s non-fiction workshop in 2004, Frances invited me to join her long-standing writing group, North 24th Writers (named at a time when all ten of the writers in the group lived north of San Francisco’s 24th Street in the Noe Valley. Now that the Stanford-based historian Leslie Berlin, author of The Man Behind the Microchip: Robert Noyce and the Invention of Silicon Valley (Oxford University Press, 2005), has joined North 24th, our name is not entirely accurate, but we’re still sticking with it even so.

The non-fiction workshop helped me expand an early draft of my first book, The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty (Gotham Books, 2007) during my second visit to Squaw. After that, I wrote a narrative history, Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure (Grove/Atlantic, 2012). Michael Carlisle beautifully represented both of my books.

Now, eager for fresh ideas as I head into my third book, I headed up to Squaw again this summer, sitting in on one of Michael’s workshops and attending the public literary events in the afternoons and evenings. Joining me was my friend and fellow North 24ther, Allison Hoover Bartlett, who wrote The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, A Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession (Riverhead, 2010.)

Allison and I could only stay for a few, mid-week days, but we especially enjoyed the book editors’ panel, which was moderated by Michael Carlisle on Thursday, July 11th. Michael teasingly asked Ann Close, who is Alice Munro’s longtime editor, about Knopf publishing E.L. James’s bestseller, 50 Shades of Grey.

Knopf never published the book in hardcover, but instead decided to publish it only in paperback and as an e-book. Typically, if a publisher thinks a book is unlikely to make it into the review pages, it will publish it as a less costly paperback.

“We figured we’d sell 50 Shades without reviews and I had the sneaking suspicion we didn’t want the Knopf name on it…” Ms. Close admitted to the audience of about 150 people. “But we did want the profits!”

It was widely reported that Random House, which owns the Knopf imprint, awarded all of its employees a $5,000 bonus based on the erotic novel’s success (particularly, as an e-book, offering its readers relative anonymity)

Jokingly referred to as 50 Shades of Green, the book topped the New York Times paperback best-seller list for 37 weeks.

Another funny story from the book editors’ panel came from Reagan Arthur, who recently became the publisher of the venerable Little, Brown & Co. and was quoted in the New York Times this past weekend in a story by London-based Sarah Lyall about J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymously published debut detective novel.

Ms. Arthur described working with comedienne Tina Fey on her bestseller, Bossy Pants (the title, according to Ms. Arthur, came from Fey’s husband.) Ms. Arthur admitted to having some doubts about the arresting cover art of Fey with a big, hairy, man’s arms.” So the publisher decided to do market testing on the cover art.

“Everybody loved the arms,” Ms. Arthur recalls, adding that Fey quipped afterwards to her that it “was the only time market testing ever worked in my favor!”

I also learned a bit more about the publishing trade terms that were tossed around during the panel.

From Knopf’s legendary senior editor Ann Close, we heard the term “figures” – which is the publisher and editor’s educated guess on how many copies of a book it might print and ship. Before bidding on a manuscript, the acquiring editor will give the “figures” to Knopf’s accountants and ask for a profit and loss statement. Close says that when she first started in the business in 1970, the practice was “just kind of to make up an estimate of what the book would sell and what kind of advance they could pay the author.”

From Reagan Arthur, Little Brown’s publisher: “track” as in an author’s track record for sales of his or her previous record. “Track does matter,” says Arthur, but then told the story of Maria Semple, the author of the bestselling novel, Where Did You Go, Bernadette? which was published four years after her 2008 sleeper, This One Is Mine. Because her first book didn’t sell many copies, Little, Brown could only offer Semple a modest advance for her second book. But, as Arthur explained, it “went on to be a very happy story!” (This hilarious book became a national bestseller.)

From Carolyn Carlson, the executive editor of Viking Penguin: the code for authors who are gorgeous or charismatic is that they are “marketable.” The code for authors (or potential authors) who have 100,000 twitter followers, or are married to the biggest bookseller in the Northeast, or who work for powerful news outlets, is that “they have a great platform.”

Other bright spots from the public events at Squaw were the published alumni readings by Amy Franklin-Willis, who wrote The Lost Saints of Tennessee (Atlantic-Monthly Press, 2012) and Alison Singh Gee, from her memoir, Where the Peacocks Sing: A Palace, A Prince, and the Search for Home (St. Martin’s, 2013)

Amy, as it turned out, is a good friend of Squaw alum and novelist Christina Meldrum and Alison is friends with Squaw alum and dear friend Dora Calott Wang, author of the wonderful memoir, The Kitchen Shink: A Psychiatrist’s Reflections on Healing in a Changing World (Riverhead, 2011)

Other highlights were screenwriter Gill Dennis’s craft talk on “Finding the Story.” It was just as inspiring as it was the first time I heard it almost a decade ago. Between panels, I had the chance to sit down with Gill, documentary filmmaker Christopher Beaver, and Martin J. Smith, a longtime editor and journalist in the L.A. area and author most recently of The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, was a pleasure: Marty and I many years ago overlapped as reporters at the Orange County Register.

I also met the well-known Hawaiian singer and author Waimea Williams, who gave a craft talk on Saturday titled “How To Be Your Own Editor.” She is the author most recently of Aloha, Mozart (Luminis Books, 2012) and, as it turned out, have friends in common in Hawaii. In western literary circles, the circle of Squaw alums is very large indeed.

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